The Future of the Advanced Manufacturing Workforce


In many ways the future is here. Artificial Intelligence (AI), smart-home technology, and other inventions of science fiction past have come to reality in quick succession, transforming lives and businesses everywhere. However, these changes have also created new problems to solve, and new concerns about technology in our lives. Perhaps the most prevalent of the concern surrounds the future of the workforce.

As automation and technology become more ingrained in careers ranging from manufacturing to finance, the idea that jobs will be harder to come by and that humans will be eliminated from the workforce has become a frequently repeated fear. Instead, most reports suggest that although automation and AI will impact traditional manufacturing and other manual labor jobs, those jobs will be replaced by new opportunities that will spur further economic growth.

New Technology = New Workforce Needs

There’s no denying that automation and AI in manufacturing will impact jobs in an already transforming industry. However, to suggest that the rise of robots correlates to a decline in manufacturing is simply false. Research from the Brookings Institution demonstrates that the United States lost more manufacturing jobs than Germany (33% compared to 19%) between 1996 and 2012, despite Germany having a significantly higher amount of automation tied into their manufacturing processes. Furthermore, countries like the United Kingdom and Australia that invested less in robots during this time actually saw faster and greater declines in manufacturing. Instead, Brookings suggests it is more likely that alternative theories such as globalization, offshoring, and skills gaps are better reasons for these declines in manufacturing.

This is not to say that automation won’t eliminate some jobs. But the reality is that automation is actually creating more jobs than it is replacing. A Deloitte study of automation implementation in the United Kingdom discovered that while 800,000 jobs were eliminated through automation, 3.5 million jobs were created. The jobs that are eliminated are low-skill, manual labor jobs, while those being created involve greater training. While this is a positive move for the workforce in the long run, it has created issues for the industry. A “skills-gap” has developed, displacing existing laborers and creating a shortage of qualified workers for these new positions.

Developing Skills Training Can Impact Future Success

With such an intensive skill shortage in the industry, it’s critical that businesses with automation in place or plans to implement automation in the near future act to circumvent a workforce crisis. As advanced manufacturing continues to rely on automation and other advancements, the skills gap can only be expected to increase. This, coupled with overseas manufacturing competition driving American-based manufacturing to operate in more high quality, precision based products, will make training all the more imperative.

As businesses begin to consider the upgrade, expansion, or relocation of their manufacturing to support automation needs, it’s important to consider both existing and potential local workforce resources. In doing so, an advanced manufacturing business can strategize to both attract prospective employees and create relationships with local colleges and universities to build a desired workforce. A prime example of this scenario is GE Aviation. GE Aviation opened a plant in Lafayette Indiana in 2015, seeking to increase production for engines on commercial jet liners. The company was aware of the lack of skills available for their plant, and created a partnership with local Purdue University and Ivy Tech Community College to create two-year programs to serve as a pipeline for these middle skill jobs.

This partnership between GE Aviation and local schools is an example worth considering when planning for your manufacturing future. In some areas, schools and cities are taking the initiative to come up with these programs independently. In East Texas, four area schools have come together to form the East Texas Advanced Manufacturing Academy, which is looking to build a gateway for local students to fill middle skills jobs. Although still in the planning stages, representatives from local manufacturers have spoken up to offer support and voice job needs. The group is looking to businesses and available grants to support the building of the program and a brick and mortar location. Similarly in North Texas, Texoma Regional Consortium has partnered with Grayson College and local industry mentors to build an advanced manufacturing program that offers dual college credits and manufacturing certifications to students looking to join the industry. Though these programs are still new, cities and business are optimistic about the success of such partnerships.

Despite calls to the contrary, manufacturing is not leaving the United States. Rather, it is evolving. As manufacturers turn to advanced tactics such as automation and AI to produce more quality, precision products, workforce needs can be expected to follow. Manufacturing is moving from a “low-skills” industry to one on the cusp of advancement, dependent on STEM skills for continued success. During this transition it is vital that businesses and the cities that support them strive to adapt, creating opportunities to transition workers into the future and build a sustainable workforce.

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