The Manufacturing Skills Gap: Reskilling Workers for a Digital Age

The Manufacturing Skills Gap: Reskilling Workers for a Digital Age

How to address the manufacturing skills gap by successfully reskilling workers.

Even before the pandemic upended business models and upended supply chains, the manufacturing industry was dealing with unprecedented transformation. From increased automation to artificial intelligence, new technology required new systems and exceptional changes to plant operations.

Then, the pandemic accelerated the pace of change, forcing many manufacturers to speed digital adoption and automation in order to improve safety and overcome supply chain disruption.

New technology requires new skills — ones that many manufacturing industry workers simply haven’t had a chance to develop. That has led to a persistent and widening mismatch between workers’ skills and the skills that are needed in the modern manufacturing company.

The manufacturing skills gap is making it difficult for some employers to fill open positions, and many predict it will worsen in the coming years: According to Deloitte, 77 percent of manufacturers anticipate ongoing difficulties in attracting and retaining workers in the coming years. Another study conducted in partnership with the Manufacturing Institute and the National Association of Manufacturers predicts that by 2030, the manufacturing skills gap could result in 2.1 million unfilled jobs in the United States.

Against those headwinds, some companies have begun to look inward at their existing workforces, whose roles may have at one time been at risk of becoming obsolete. Instead, manufacturers of all types are now grappling with a significant challenge: retaining and reskilling workers to support their digital transformation strategy.

Filling the Manufacturing Skills Gap From Within

From digital twins to the Internet of Things to 3D printers, the manufacturing industry is awash with new technology. Traditional manufacturing plants have transformed into smart factories filled with technology designed to make things run smarter, faster, and more efficiently. While the automating of systems can ultimately mean fewer roles for plant-floor workers, all manufacturers — no matter the extent of automation — still rely on human employees.

Some manufacturers are looking within their existing workforce for advantages over finding new workers with these new skills. Not only does reskilling workers ensure that jobs are protected, but for employers, retaining those with valuable insight into their company’s operations simply makes good business sense.

Retraining enables operators to become part of what Sarah Boisvert, author of The New Collar Workforce and co-founder of the commercial division of Potomac Photonics, a manufacturer in Baltimore, calls the “new collar” workplace. Ultimately, she notes, retraining not only can offer new pathways for workers but also has the potential to reinvigorate entire companies.

Reskilling workers requires thought and training, as well as more than a little patience, says Carissa Gudenkauf, talent consultant and coach at MVP-Results, a talent strategy service based in Tampa, Florida.

In the 2020 Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends Study, 75 percent of organizations identified reskilling the workforce as important for their success over the next year, but only 10 percent said they were very ready to address this trend.

How to Reskill Workers

Employers are acutely aware of the fact that reskilling workers can be a significant undertaking. In some cases, employers may need to train employees on the digital skills to program software and sensor systems, operate software, and maintain robots. In other cases, there may be opportunities to transplant workers into functions with transferable skills, such as retraining product technicians to become product-expert sales specialists.

However, according to Gudenkauf, it’s important to carefully evaluate each employee’s strengths rather than simply assigning them to new roles that sound similar. While reassigning a salesperson from in-office to on-phone sales may seem like an obvious move, that might not necessarily be the best fit for their strengths. “Does that person have the same level of sociability over the phone as in person? It’s a different level of communication, and a person’s natural work styles may not lend themselves to phone sales,” she says.

Gudenkauf also advises managers to pay close attention to each employee’s preferred learning style. For example, many skilled workers are hands-on learners who will be most successful when they understand the full functionality of a machine. Others may simply prefer to have a clear set of instructions to follow. By tailoring your training to a variety of learning styles, you can help ensure that your workers thrive in their new roles.

While change may happen more slowly than some managers might like, it’s important to consider the difference between what workers were hired to do and what you’re asking of them. That doesn’t mean change can’t or won’t happen — it just means the timeline needs to be well thought out and realistic.

Because the process of reskilling workers can require a great deal of time, energy, and careful consideration, some companies might consider engaging the help of a training or career development specialist who can help assess workers’ individual strengths and ensure they’re placed into a role in which they’ll thrive.

While investments in new technology can help raise productivity and cut operating costs, part of the technology investment must be allocated to retraining workers for jobs that match their skill sets. It’s an investment that’s likely to pay off in spades.

For managers, it’s important to remember that robots and software alone don’t run the plant — the people overseeing them do. And that’s one fact that will never change.

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