Three Elements Lead to Skills Success
EP Editorial Staff | January 21, 2020
A multi-faceted plan is needed to retain critical talent and build new skills for a changing industry.
By Brian Fortney, Rockwell Automation and Mary Burgoon, Academy of Advanced Manufacturing Rockwell Automation
The greatest threat to many manufacturers today isn’t any external force, such as competitors or new regulations. It’s internal—critical shop-floor jobs that are sitting open because skilled workers can’t be found to fill them.
According to Deloitte, New York (deloitte.com), an estimated 2.4-million U.S. manufacturing positions will go unfilled between 2018 and 2028 because of the skills gap. In that time, the skills gap could nab $2.5 trillion of manufacturing GDP.
A lack of skills can sting almost every aspect of your business. It can lead to missed production orders and poor product quality. It can hurt your ability to innovate. It also can endanger worker health and safety if your teams are overstretched.
By understanding your skills needs and creating a multi-faceted strategy to address them, you can do more than survive the skills gap. You can create an agile, productive, and competitive business.
A Dual Challenge
The skills gap is actually two large trends converging to create one big problem, like two waves crashing together on a ship at sea. First, large numbers of skilled workers are retiring, and not enough experienced workers are taking their places. As a result, it’s becoming harder and harder to fill critical roles. In 2018, the average number of days it took to fill engineering, research, and scientist positions was 118 days. That’s an increase of about 25% from 2015.
The second trend is the digitalization of manufacturing. The merging of industrial and IT systems, along with a shift to information-driven decision making, is putting new demands on workers. They need new skills in areas such as coding, network topologies, and wireless communications to deploy and sustain these new, connected operations.
Many companies are overwhelmed by these skills challenges. As a result, they end up taking little or no action. That’s why it’s so important that you have a multi-faceted strategy—so you can understand your risks and establish tactics to address them. Your own strategy will be unique to your needs. But you should consider using three key elements of skills development: engagement, training, and support.
Engage and Re-educate
We need to engage young people to change their manufacturing perceptions. Unfortunately, many still only learn about industry in history class. What do you get when a student’s understanding of manufacturing is Henry Ford and black-and-white images of assembly lines? Most textbooks describe manufacturing jobs as “thoughtless work at an assembly line” and “stagnant, with no room for originality or individuality.”
It’s time we open young people’s eyes to the manufacturing of today: operators who walk the plant floor with iPads, robotic machines that work alongside humans, production lines that come to a stop when a worker nears them, engineers who get x-ray vision of a machine when they look at it with augmented-reality technology.
Every manufacturer should be communicating this message to students and young skilled workers. How? By delivering it in classrooms, at job fairs, and as part of scholarships. By promoting it on social media, or by reaching out to local newspapers, radio stations, and TV stations to help spread the message. Maybe even by throwing creative events that reach young people, such as a “microbrews and manufacturing” event at a local brewery.
Of course, there’s a lot more to communicate than manufacturing’s cool factor. Students who worry about finding a job out of college should know that skilled workers are in demand. Not only skilled operators, but also positions such as control engineers, safety specialists, and machine designers.
These workers hardly have “stagnant” jobs. Today, our ability to use digital technologies to transform manufacturing is only limited by our imagination. We need creative thinkers and problem solvers more than ever.
Finally, young people should know that companies are paying more for skilled workers and offering incentives such as tuition reimbursements. In fact, the next time you host a student tour, meet them in the parking lot. Let them see the luxury vehicles that your colleagues take to work everyday thanks to their manufacturing jobs.
Use a Training Mixture
Training can help you close skills gaps in several ways. For example, it can help you retain the skills and “tribal knowledge” of retiring workers. There are tools available that you can use to assess worker skill and knowledge levels. This allows you to identify gaps in your workforce, which you can then address with a tailored training program.
Training can also help your workers make the most of smarter and more-connected operations. For example, training and certification programs are available that provide workers the blended mix of IT and operations technology (OT) skills they need to deploy, oversee, and sustain connected systems. This blended training extends to the modes you can use to train. Blending instructor-led training with self-paced e-learning can provide maximum impact for your employees.
When you make training convenient for workers, you make it easier for them to grow and evolve with your business. Multi-day training sessions that require travel aren’t practical for today’s workers, their families, or your business. That’s why you should consider taking advantage of e-learning programs. They offer workers more flexibility with “anytime, anywhere” training, so they can develop knowledge and skills on a schedule that works best for them (and you).
Finally, training can help you attract new employees and fill critical roles in new and creative ways. It can be helpful to investigate training programs in your area and include them in your recruiting activities.
For example, we developed the Academy of Advanced Manufacturing (AAM) program with Manpower Group, Milwaukee (manpowergroup.com). It’s an intensive, 12-week program that certifies highly skilled U.S. military veterans for in-demand manufacturing jobs. The veterans receive a combination of classroom learning and hands-on laboratory experience. AAM also matches graduates with participating companies that have positions to fill. To date, some graduates have doubled their previous salaries.
Close Gaps With Partners
If a lack of skills is already threatening uptime or productivity in your operations, help is available. Industry partners can provide support services and skilled workers to augment your staff on a short-term or as-needed basis.
Remote monitoring and support services can continuously watch over your machines around the clock. Remote engineers quickly detect technical issues and work with your on-site staff to help resolve them. This can be especially valuable for helping protect your critical processes, continuous operations, and production facilities in remote locations.
Similarly, remote monitoring of your network can help improve uptime of your connected operations, particularly if you don’t have IT staff on-site at production facilities.
Factory-trained engineers can also be embedded to help keep operations on schedule when you can’t find local qualified talent. This on-site support is ideal for assisting with projects such as facility start-ups, maintenance, and upgrades.
A Transformed Workforce
Companies today are already feeling the pains of the manufacturing skills gap. Doing nothing is not an option. You need a strategy to retain the critical skills of retiring workers and to provide the new skills needed for more connected operations.
Remember: This isn’t only about filling skills gaps and avoiding disaster. A skilled workforce is essential to a competitive business. It can help your company perform better and avoid unplanned downtime, reduce safety and security risks, and promote better use of new technologies to gain an edge in a changing industry. For more information on e-learning, click here. EP
Brian Fortney is Global Product Manager, Training Services, Rockwell Automation, Milwaukee. Mary Burgoon is the Business Development Manager, Academy of Advanced Manufacturing at Rockwell Automation (rockwellautomation.com).