The future of work in manufacturing - COVID-19, generational divides and skills front of mind

Profile picture for user ddpreez By Derek du Preez July 29, 2020
The National Association of Manufacturers is keen to get a message out that the future of manufacturing is going to be dynamic and exciting, not killed by automation.

Image of someone welding in a manufacturing plant
(Image by Igor Ovsyannykov from Pixabay )

The manufacturing sector faces a number of challenges in the years to come. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted vulnerabilities in operations, whilst there is also a perception problem amongst younger generations that a career path in the sector will be limited because of the rise of automation. These were all issues addressed by the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) at Infor's Manufacturing Virtual Summit, where executive director Carylon Lee said that the industry needs to get better at selling the opportunities available.

NAM is a membership and advocacy group in the USA, which represents more than 14,000 companies across all industrial sectors.

Speaking to the impact of the novel Coronavirus and a nationwide lockdown, Lee said that manufacturing was classed as an ‘essential operation' and as a result remained open throughout, with many companies focused on making PPE and other essentials for citizens. She said:

Even though we had a lot of our office jobs that were sent to be remote, a lot of the production was still happening. People were in the plants.

Manufacturing was operating as essential operations. The industry rose to the occasion, we accelerated the production of PPE because it became so dire. The NAM worked with federal and state governments to make sure that they had access to manufacturers' knowledge and production supply chains to make sure we had the equipment.

However, the pandemic has highlighted to the sector that things can and should be done differently in the future. Whilst people were in the plants and production continued, there were also large numbers of people that shifted to remote working and monitoring of work from afar. Lee said that this forced shift to distributed work has brought the role of technology and Industry 4.0 into focus, with NAM seeing companies implementing long-lasting change. She explained:

What would this have been like ten years ago before Zoom? Five years ago, before we had these technologies that we could do so much remotely? Manufacturing 4.0 transformation is something we've all talked a lot about in the sectors - the new IoT world, putting everything online, being able to monitor your systems and engage to see how machines are operating. That had been implemented in our industry and then this happened. So you have operators and production leaders that can look in on their operations to make sure things are happening from afar.

We are hearing from a lot of companies that some of the jobs that can be remote, will be remote for a while in order to make sure that the resources for the protective equipment can be dedicated to those frontline workers. Keeping the frontline workers that have to be there safer, because there are fewer people.

However, NAM and its members are also aware that they don't want to broaden the division between those on the ground and those ‘up in their ivory towers', as it were. Lee added:

But we also don't want to exacerbate the gap between the office and production. So some companies are putting a very specific focus on how you bridge that gap now, having people who aren't normally in the plants taking turns to be in the plants to make sure they're understanding what the current environment is. But I think this whole experience over the last few months will fundamentally change how we work.

Some of the changes that are already being made, according to NAM's leadership council, include: closing cafeterias so that there isn't a centralised place to convene; people taking breaks and staying in their dedicated areas, so interaction with other employees is limited; using technology to identify people in certain areas of a plan, so companies know who they are interacting with; installing physical distancing barriers, if PPE isn't appropriate.

A growing generational divide

It was highlighted during the discussion with Lee that NAM is aware that there is suppressed interest amongst Gen X and millennial groups to pursue a career in manufacturing, whilst every 8 seconds a baby boomer retires from the industry. As such, there's a growing gap in skills and work needs to be done to excite future generations about the industry.

Lee is aware that manufacturing needs to do better at selling a stronger story. She said:

The speed at which we need to replace those skilled workers, the people with that experience, is really accelerating. So we have a perception problem in our sector. One of the main focuses for the institute is changing the perception of the sector. I grew up knowing that you could be productive and create things and solve problems - that's what manufacturing is doing. Not to mention, enabling everything that we enjoy in our lives. But some people think you are going to stand on an assembly line and punch a widget. 40 years there's your life and that's all you've done. They don't see the dynamic, technology driven industry that we are in today.

We have to tell a different story. How manufacturers have responded to this crisis is actually a fantastic story. Manufacturers have the opportunity to create the solutions to the problems that we face today and rise to the healthcare challenge through innovation. If you want to have an impact on our society - which we read our Gen Z and millennials want - manufacturing is a fantastic sector to do that in. You get to create these things, build it en masse, have it reach so many people.

NAM is considering a number of ‘best practice' ways to ensure this happens. For example, it wants younger generations and their willingness to share stories on social media to tell the story of a fulfilling career within manufacturing. It is also aware that companies that have ERG groups, such as those for women, or people of colour, or those within the LGBTQ+ community, tend to do better at attracting younger entrants. Equally, the younger generation's experience with technology should be harnessed and utilised within companies to share knowledge upwards within organisations.

However, in addition to this, Lee is also keen to acknowledge that a career in manufacturing is now about accepting a career that involves life-long learning - a change from previous generations. She explained:

Again, I think this is a generational divide. When I went to school it was you went to school and then you were done. Yes, you could go on and get further degrees, but we kind of thought about it as time periods. And really we have to recognise that this is not a world of education as a destination, but as a process of lifelong learning. You're constantly adapting new skills.

Some of it is going to be very informal, you watch a YouTube video or a training video, you take a test and you've incorporated some new skills. Some of it is very formal, it's going to a technical school, or you're taking a very rigorous online course and getting a certification. What we need to recognise is that we need to do all of these things and all of these pathways are valuable. All of these things should be encouraged.

Earn and learn opportunities are increasing right now, which are also known as apprenticeships. You're working and you're getting knowledge at the same time and that helps to reduce the barriers to education. We have to be open to all of these things because as you bring on new technologies you're always going to need to learn how to operate the new machine or operate the new system.

Is automation an industry killer?

During the conversation, Infor highlighted the rise of automation in manufacturing and referenced a Deloitte report which states that in 2018 humans carried out 71% of tasks, but by 2022 this will drop to 58%. However, the report also found that although 75 million jobs will be eliminated, 133 million new jobs will be created.

It's this positive net effect narrative that NAM is hoping to take advantage of when promoting the future of the industry, where it hopes that automation will actually make a career in manufacturing more valuable, not less. Lee said:

Automation is changing the nature of work and it is changing the face of work and what jobs look like. What I've found is that every single person that I've talked to has said that automation is helping their jobs, it's making their jobs more interesting, it's replacing that repetitive task that they didn't like or the thing that hurt them after doing it for a long time. So the tasks are being replaced at some minimal level.

But the human that's beside the machine, is doing the thinking, the processing, the design. So it's changing the nature of work but what it's doing right now is very positive. It's freeing the human capacity up for the things that are inherently human. Automation is a tool.

When we talk about attracting people to the sector, if they think it's a dead end because robots are going to come and replace them, that's going to make it really hard. And it couldn't be further from the truth. There's a lot of opportunity to work with the technology.