A realistic look at digital transformation in the manufacturing workforce

A net loss of about 578,000 jobs occurred when the pandemic first hit in 2020. This figure is significant such that it represents about six years of job gains. Meanwhile, approximately 500,000 jobs have remained open in the manufacturing industry. According to a National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) Manufacturers’ Outlook Survey, there has also been the notable business challenge of attracting and retaining a quality workforce.

Open positions, not enough people

Back in 2018, there were historically low unemployment rates. When we take a look at more current times, the same statement can be applied as the pandemic has affected the state of labor and skill gaps. According to a Deloitte report, the manufacturing industry within the United States is even expected to have about 2.1 million unfilled jobs by the year 2030.

A key imperative for leaders of the industry include their ability to have diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) initiatives. Another significant detail that manufacturing leaders should consider is creating pathways for the future when it comes to jobs today.

The report also went into how digital transformation plays a significant part in the manufacturing industry’s ability to redefine its workforce.

Digital transformation in the manufacturing workforce

Although the pandemic caused a disruption in the labor market, many manufacturers have opted to accelerate their digital adoption capabilities. In the 2021 Deloitte Global Resilience Study, it was found that about 57% of respondents said they used advanced technologies to update their tasks. A prime example of this would be turning to automation instead of doing tasks manually.

Automation, in particular, helped with maintaining production levels and encouraged plant personnel to upskill quickly. It also required employees to adapt to the new technologies. However, it should also be noted that although some manufacturers embraced digital transformation from the get-go, those who haven’t adapted struggled to do so.

The rapid pace at which technological advancements occur plays an integral part in the very nature of manufacturing jobs as well. The acceleration of digital transformation can impact, for example, assemblers, machinists and industrial design engineers.

Compared to the past, these roles require more technology skills than ever before. The need for these digital skills would only increase in the future of work.

Key technology skills include the following:
  • Understanding industrial control software
  • Operating connected equipment
  • Leveraging computer-aided manufacturing (CAM) software 
  • Using advanced computer data analytics
  • Advancing computer skills 
  • Using document and spreadsheet products
  • Taking advantage of statistical analysis

Of course, these skills work in tandem with specialized ones.

Specialized skills include the following:
  • Leveraging digital systems
  • Conducting data analysis 
  • Understanding automated equipment
  • Employing production process proficiency 
  • Working with state-of-the-art robotics
  • Understanding automated process monitoring and control

What manufacturing leaders should consider is how they could manage their workforce in such a way that everyone understands how to use new technologies to their advantage. Having training or rotational programs in place, for example, can aid in reskilling employees and prepare them for the years to come as the industry moves away from narrow requirements and toward various skills that are advantageous to have across a plant.

A realistic look and the power of human capabilities

While being tech-savvy plays a significant role in the success of a plant, it’s also not enough to solve the manufacturing industry’s broader gaps in the workforce.

Realistically, in addition to focusing on digital skills, it’s vital that leaders put value in innate human capabilities. Decision-making, social flexibility and conceptual thinking, for example, are the prerequisites for successful outcomes within a transforming organization.

Other human capabilities include the following:
  • Having digital learning agility 
  • Managing resources
  • Making decisions
  • Solving problems
  • Handling multiple teams at once
  • Having advanced digital skills

The 2021 Deloitte Global Resilience study backs this up, noting that flexibility or adaptability is the most critical in the workforce when it comes to an organization’s future. While technology skills are important, so is the need to cultivate these human capabilities during the reskilling process.

As the manufacturing industry slowly begins to bounce back from the pandemic, the reskilling of workers coupled with cultivating their capabilities are integral. Digital transformation is not something that can be done overnight. Rather, it’s an ongoing process that requires the efforts of manufacturing leaders and the evolving labor force.

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