Solutions to Manufacturing Skilled Labor Shortage

By David Oeters, Corporate Communications with CIMx Software

Modern manufacturing requires skilled workers – a fact many companies aren’t prepared to address.

CIMx recently attended a manufacturing trade show and had the opportunity to speak with manufacturers about their industry concerns.

One topic kept coming up again and again – the workforce. Manufacturers are worried they won’t have enough skilled workers to meet production demand.

Manufacturing companies are receiving new orders and business is growing, but many question whether the current workforce can manage demand. If they can’t, and they need to hire more, can they find a hire with the right skill set? Will the right employee be willing to work in manufacturing? If they do take the job, how quickly can new workers be trained? If an employee leaves, is there someone available to take their place?  What critical skills will be lost when someone retires?

New orders and a growing business is a good sign for manufacturing in America, but only if companies can keep up with demand.

Understanding the Problem

Quality.

There are steps manufacturers can take to solve the skilled labor gap. Illustration by http://www.colourbox.com

The skilled labor problem shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who observes the industry. We’ve spoken about it before, and the industry warns the problem will continue to grow as older employees retire and manufacturing processes continue to evolve.

Recently, the need for skilled labor, especially with technology and software skills, has accelerated as companies increasingly turn to smart manufacturing, automation, and data-driven production to increase throughput and profit. The industry isn’t attracting workers with the right skills to manage and optimize modern manufacturing.

There isn’t a single core reason for this problem, but a combination of factors. Consider this:

  • Manufacturing has changed, but a college graduate is more likely to imagine a factory worker with a wrench than a tablet. Manufacturing has done little to change this dated perception, but some companies, such as GE, are taking positive steps to recognize the problem.
  • Our industry has been shortsighted in addressing the technology gap on the shop floor. Recently, the Wall Street Journal published an article on the struggle of manufacturing to attract software developers. A critical reason is the perceived lack of support technology workers see in the industry. Companies still rely on paper on the shop floor, ensuring graduates turn to tech firms, rather than manufacturers, for employment.
  • Manufacturers don’t offer the training programs skilled tech workers need. Without training, workers can’t keep up with the pace of change in technology, leading to job stress and lower productivity. Only recently have companies begun designing vocational programs for skilled labor.

Solving the Skilled Labor Gap

There is no magic solution to the skilled labor shortage in manufacturing, but there are steps companies can take to mitigate the problems.

  • Eliminate information silos. Consider the critical skills and best practices in your manufacturing workflow as an asset and protect them. Too often, companies take for granted work will “just get done” without considering the process. Manufacturers need to capture critical processes, helping to create internal training programs for new employees.
  • Increase employee productivity. Dated and error-prone paper-based processes hinder production. Employees spend more time managing paper and looking for information than actually building products. Modern tech workers, the ones manufacturing needs to attract, will find work in industries with more job satisfaction when faced with paper build books.
  • Empower current workers. The solution may not be a new hire, but empowering existing employees. Utilizing a software system such as an MES or Paperless Manufacturing will provide an HMI current workers can use. It won’t give you a programmer on the shop floor, but it will allow you to better manage people, processes and machines during production.
  • Manage the workflow. Errors often occur when workers don’t read or even consult the work instructions. Paperless Manufacturing uses process enforcement ensure the shop floor follows steps precisely. In this way, the system becomes a digital instructor; ensuring knowledge and experience aren’t lost when someone retires and the manufacturing engineers instructions are followed precisely.
  • Fill in the technology gaps. Study your processes and identify where there are gaps. Develop a strategy to fill those gaps. Focusing effort and resources on one aspect of the manufacturing value chain will offer minimal benefit if other areas are hindering overall efficiency.
  • Change the culture. As evidenced by the difficulty in attracting skilled labor, manufacturing has an image problem. Slick commercials and an investment in technology will help, but without confronting head-on the culture that created the image, problems will persist. Many manufacturers are reluctant to embrace change, adopting a strategy of waiting when faced with challenges. Tech workers know this, and it drives many to seek employment elsewhere.

Where will Manufacturing Go from Here?

Manufacturing is changing. Whether you call it Industry 4.0, Smart Manufacturing, or another term, manufacturers need new skills and new workers to capitalize on the opportunity.  Waiting another year or doing nothing is not a sustainable solution as skilled workers continue to seek employment in industries where they are appreciated and supported.

The first step to solving the skilled labor gap is to admit there is a problem, and then developing a strategy to overcome it.

Want to learn more, or see how Paperless Manufacturing can be the foundation for improved manufacturing and shop floor modernization? Then contact CIMx today for more information. We’re happy to help.

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