The smart factory is only as smart as its workers

June 15, 2016

Post image for The smart factory is only as smart as its workers

By: John Karren, US Industrial Products People & Organization Leader, PwC and Gardner Carrick, Vice President, Strategic Initiatives, Manufacturing Institute

Who’s disrupting whom?

That question has reached peak-hype in the last year as industries brace for the next big quake of disruption from a new technology (Internet of Things, anyone?) or a new start-up or new trend (who saw the natural gas boom coming?).

While companies are wise to be on the look-out for disruption, there’s another, more human, side to disruption: what it all means for America’s worker.

In manufacturing, this is a lightening rod. As we know, it’s clearly not your grandfather’s factory anymore. With a new army of coders, app developers and data scientists marching into the ranks of the industrial workforce, the assembly workers seem as quaint as the wrench they wield. But, as technologies are being adopted at a mind-boggling pace and breadth, capturing and nurturing the right talent—and up-skilling existing workers—to exploit that technology persists as a pressing issue.

As part of PwC’s Next Manufacturing portfolio of research, we looked, in a recent study, at how advanced manufacturing technology is changing (and in some cases upending) the talent picture now (and looking down the road) as they shape the next-gen workforce.  Overall, what we found is that a surprisingly high percentage of manufacturers, contrary to some conventional thinking, are aggressively embracing measures to grow a workforce that can keep pace with new technologies (data analysis, 3D printing, robotics, and virtual reality, to name a few).  Quite simply, factories are getting much smarter.

Consider a few findings from our recent survey of US manufactures:

  • Skills shortages are not uniformly felt today: 33% of manufacturers say they have no or only a little difficulty in hiring talent to exploit advanced manufacturing technologies, while 44% have ‘moderate difficulty.’
  • Robots and other advanced tech aren’t stealing all the manufacturing jobs: 37% believe that the adoption of advanced manufacturing technologies will result in their hiring additional employees; 45% said it will have no impact on hiring; and 17% said it will result in hiring fewer employees.
  • Advanced tech is changing job requirements and descriptions: Nearly three-quarters of non-factory floor manufacturing jobs are given to candidates with a four-year or advanced degree.
  • The most common strategy to upskill employees in advanced manufacturing is to train in-house, followed by recruiting local STEM students and offering outside vocational training.

So, manufacturers seem to be well aware of the needs to reconfigure their workforce, and are adding a heavier weight to the STEM worker as part of that reconfiguration. But, they are also aware that, in the long-term, they need to keep a steady pipeline of new talent entering their doors. At the moment, feeding the pipeline seems more of a learn-as-you-go, reactive approach than a coherent national strategy. The onus of a well-prepared workforce has, for many years, lay solely on the shoulders of manufactures.

Some might rightly argue that public policy makers, high schools and colleges also have a stake in (and responsibility for) perennially prepping the industrial workforce. For example, while there has been a tradition of apprenticeships in the trades in the US, it has been fragmented and not as pervasive as other countries, particularly Germany, and now the UK.  But, until the apprenticeship model matures in the US, much of the responsibility for preparation of new manufacturing talent will be up to manufacturers. In the meantime (and this is encouraging) manufacturers are looking for and finding new models of bringing in the talent they’ll need for the long haul—from building apprenticeship programs, to drawing talent away from other industries into manufacturing, to tapping the growing reservoir of makers, self-taught coders of the so-called “Gig economy”, estimated to be some 53-million strong in the US.

But, as manufacturers become more automated, connected and virtual, they will become less fixated on the number of workers in the manufacturing sector, but rather on the kind and nature of the worker they need.

Our full report can be found here: Upskilling manufacturing: How technology is disrupting America’s industrial labor force.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Previous post:

Next post: