Paying it forward: Why manufacturers and suppliers must train the next generation

Monday November 07, 2016
Written by Mark Humphlett, Infor
Nov. 7, 2016 - Much has been written recently about the skills gap issue in manufacturing. Despite this spotlight on the issue, and some grassroots initiatives to emphasize science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) curriculum in public schools, little meaningful impact has been achieved.

Manufacturers are still struggling to fill the vacancies left by retiring baby boomers. It’s estimated over the next decade, nearly 3.5 million manufacturing jobs will likely be needed. Of those, 2 million are expected to go unfilled. Without right-skilled personnel in place, manufacturers will be hard-pressed to keep up with fast-paced change. They risk becoming irrelevant and obsolete.

The United States Department of Labor (DOL) recently announced funding for a new $50.5-million investment in a program called ApprenticeshipUSA, part of a strategy to grow and diversify apprenticeships. The hope is that this effort will result in thousands of new apprenticeships in diverse industries, including advanced manufacturing and information technology.

While manufacturers can take advantage of this nudge from Washington, D.C., they will also benefit from owning the problem and taking their own steps to combat the core issues. Manufacturers who hand off the skills gap problem to outside agencies or associations may become frustrated when red tape and bureaucratic mandates get in the way of real progress. There is always the risk — or precaution — that federal money comes with strings attached. 

The funds can provide a nice jump start, though, as timing is becoming critical. Industry experts, like IDC Manufacturing Insights, expect digitalization to be widespread by 2020. Yet, only 15 per cent of manufacturers are already deploying digitalization tactics. This means wholesale changes in operations and processes are yet to be launched. The demand will happen overnight, placing high pressure on recruiting. The positions are largely technical and most have to do with data science. This is no time to place people in key positions simply because they answered the job posting and “know someone who knows someone” already in the plant.

Yet, manufacturers may feel they can’t be too picky. Applicants, especially those with IT skills, aren’t showing up in droves. Misconceptions about manufacturing are keeping applicants away. A recent poll conducted by the Foundation of Fabricators & Manufacturers Association, says 52 per cent of all teenagers report no interest in a manufacturing career, calling manufacturing “a dirty, dangerous place that requires little thinking or skill from its workers and offers minimal opportunity for personal growth or career advancement.” Another study conducted by Deloitte and National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) found only 37 per cent of adult respondents would encourage their children to pursue a manufacturing career.

Manufacturing needs a makeover, Oprah-style. The public remembers images of plants closing in the Great Recession and is skeptical about believing manufacturing is alive again or on the road to thriving. But the technology is tempting. Robotics, laser technology, machine learning, 3D printing, data science, virtual reality and global sensor tracking are reality. It’s a science geek’s wonderland, a gamer’s real-life version of Minecraft, a millennial’s ultimate collaborative and social engineering experience. Manufacturers need those young people who live technology, breathe social media, and instinctively know how to collaborate and build consensus among groups. 

What types of personnel and skills do manufacturers really need to recruit? Does everyone need an engineering degree or the ability to write code? Hardly. We know it’s not the same skills that were required in the post-war, golden era of manufacturing, when a strong back, ability to follow directions, and a desire to provide for your family were the main prerequisites.

Employment in manufacturing peaked in 1979, at almost 19.6 million jobs, or 30 per cent of the workforce. “Getting on the line” at the hometown plant, whether it was meat-packing or appliance-assembly, was the default job for one-third of all young men living in urban centres and entering the workforce, usually at age eighteen. While high school “shop classes” provided basic skills, apprenticeship programs typically offered new hires their on-the-job training. This worked in the past. Can it work again? 

As future-focused, tech-savvy manufacturers turn to digitalization strategies, out-of-the-box thinking is required. To seize the vision and monetize service and data, manufacturers need power players in finance, merchandising, retail, supply networks, and software solutions.

To help create a bridge to new capabilities, some suppliers are helping train future users and expose them to modern software functionality. For example, Infor has created The Education Alliance Program, designed to build on the value of a classroom education by providing students and faculty with access to real-world business tools and projects that encourage them to engage in critical thinking and problem solving. It also offers practical experience courses such as Implementation Consultancy which provide apprenticeship-like training and development and direct consideration for available employment. The intent is to give both technology and business students a competitive edge as they pursue career opportunities, and provide an experiential understanding of the interaction among various departments — how IT supports business management, and how business needs define IT projects, etc. — so they can better prepare for the future.

As future-focused, tech-savvy manufacturers step up their IT game, they also need to address recruiting and training their workforce. What was old may be new again. Apprenticeship programs may be the answer once again, but manufacturers also need creative thinkers, problem solvers, collaborators, team builders, inspiring innovators, and motivating leaders. They also need the story tellers and artists, the creative visionaries who can keep the ideas flowing. A simple “Help wanted” sign in the window isn’t going to be enough.

Mark Humphlett is the senior director, Industry & Solution Strategy at Infor.

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