The Advanced Manufacturing Skills Gap: What Are the Skills of the Future?

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There has been a lot of discussion as to what the future holds for advanced manufacturing. The move to technology and automation in both assembly and production lines has created fears around job displacement and losses for manufacturers everywhere. The reality could not be further from this. In the U.K. alone, the addition of technology in manufacturing processes has added 3.5 million jobs compared to the 800,000 jobs displaced.

Issues around the future of manufacturing and the workforce come into play when you consider the type of skills new manufacturing jobs require. As Industry 4.0 continues to grow, gone are the days of low-skill, dangerous manufacturing work. Instead, manufacturing will become increasingly reliant on “middle-skill” and “high-skill” jobs, ranging in education level from technical certifications to PhDs. The concern for the industry then becomes this: What are the missing skills that manufacturers need for future success, and how can companies prepare their workforce?

New Technical Needs

The most obvious issue of the advanced manufacturing skills gap is a lack of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education in the workforce. A national study by Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute found that current and new workers lack technology and computer skills (70%) and basic technical training (67%). In addition, 78% of those surveyed felt that this advanced manufacturing skills gap would impact the addition of new technology to their processes and would negatively impact expansion and growth.

While technical training was not a required skill in the past, the advanced nature of new machines — as well as the use of processes related to the Industrial Internet of Things — makes this kind of knowledge vital to advanced manufacturing jobs today. Instead of repetitive and physical tasks, manufacturers will need skills such as the ability to use computers proficiently and how to troubleshoot or read and write code. Previous manufacturing efforts involved following specific orders and routines, but the inclusion of machines in the process means manufacturers will need problem-solving and critical thinking skills in order to make important decisions if machines malfunction. At a higher level, manufacturers will also need to hire more employees with an increased skill level such as engineers and data scientists, to help optimize processes.

Building a STEM Workforce

Given this more advanced skill set need, how can manufacturers find the right workers? The problem is so new, that manufacturing companies are still trying to work with the workforce they have. A major method is augmenting or supporting associate degree programs, apprenticeships, and on-the-job training. When Toyota opened a new plant in Kentucky several years ago, they used an approach that took an area lacking in the workforce they needed and invested in it to build a solid pipeline for the future. Other companies have followed suit.

In North Texas, Richland College — a part of Dallas County Community Colleges — has developed advanced manufacturing resources, including an advanced manufacturing lab, to train students for jobs at neighboring manufacturers like Lockheed Martin and Bell Helicopter. Making this sort of investment allows companies to properly train for the skills they need and build rapport in the community at the same time.

Adaptive Skills Are Important Too

While it is easy to dismiss the future of advanced manufacturing as pure technological advancement, the reality is that many of the skills manufacturers are missing are not technical in nature. Rather, they are adaptive in nature and possess the ability to function in changing environments.

As robots take over the brunt of the work, the skills that manufacturers need will change. Employees will not just need to know how to work the machines involved but will have to understand the process and be able to leverage data to problem solve issues and improve systems.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Information Network (ONET), adaptive skills make up 9 out of the 10 skills needed for Industry 4.0 jobs. Yet these skills, consisting of critical thinking and complex problem solving, are not traditionally taught in programs that focus on the more technical aspects of manufacturing. There is no simple answer to finding ways to teach these skills long term, but it will be an important consideration for manufacturers as they build the partnerships necessary to cultivate the future workforce.

Facilitating the Workforce Change

Long considered a “blue collar” and “low-skill” industry, the future of manufacturing is already transforming this image. As manufacturing becomes more competitive worldwide and automation integrates into the process, the needs of the industry are moving toward a more technically advanced and “middle-skill” career path. To keep up with this change in needs, it is imperative that manufacturing companies endeavor to build strong partnerships with their local educational avenues to help create manufacturing’s workforce future.

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