Written by Thomas Spilker

Pt 5: 3 Ways to Recruit Digitally-Inclined Talent in Manufacturing

Digital transformation in manufacturing has proven to connect teams across the extended enterprise, improve business processes, slash product development cycles, optimize products, and save money. Over the course of this blog series, we’ve discussed what “going digital” may look like for different steps in the product development and manufacturing lifecycle. However, going digital isn’t limited to implementing the right technologies and business processes. It’s also about finding the right people. 

In fact, one of the biggest obstacles in digital manufacturing isn’t about technology, tools, or process at all. 21 percent of US manufacturers are facing a talent war.

The Talent Shortage in Manufacturing

Many Americans likely have a perception that there is a shortage of manufacturing jobs. After all, it’s common to see news stories and debates focused on the seemingly constant loss of factory jobs. US manufacturing employment has indeed declined in the past 25 years, and many manufacturers are reducing their headcount. Yet, our industry is facing a shortage of workers. Deloitte estimates that the industry could have a shortage of 2 million workers by 2028. These seem like two contradictory standpoints - so, what’s the truth?

The future of our industry isn’t about reducing headcount, but is more about talent realignment. It requires hiring people with the right digital manufacturing skills. Deloitte found that “positions relating to digital talent, skilled production, and operational managers may be three times as difficult to fill in the next three years.” The truth is, manufacturing jobs are plentiful, but young workers aren’t showing interest. 

The incoming workforce tends to have misconceptions about manufacturing. One article from Engineering.com says the industry is seen as “low-tech, dangerous, dirty, and low-paying work.” That doesn’t sound at all like the digital manufacturing capabilities available today. Modern manufacturing in Industry 4.0 is vastly different than the stereotypical image of turn-of-the-20th-century manufacturing. In order to attract new, digitally-inclined talent into the industry, manufacturers have to start embracing digital transformation as part of their culture. I recommend that organizations look at three areas in particular to attract talent.

1. Matching Digital Tools to Digital Skills

Today’s incoming talent grew up with digital skills and technologies and understand their intricacies like second nature. Digital technologies such as smartphones, tablets, instant messaging, and others barely scratch the surface of the digital skills that today’s young workers bring to the table. Most engineers in school are being taught on the most innovative and current CAD, collaboration, design, and production tools. Yet, too many manufacturing companies are stuck using tools and approaches from 10, 20, or even 30 years ago.

In order to attract the most digitally-inclined talent, manufacturers need to invest in the tools incoming talent is used to. Today’s workers expect their tools and approaches to be innovative, digital, and high-tech. The good news is that many manufacturers are recognizing the importance of providing digital tools to incoming talent. In the next 3-5 years, manufacturers will be investing in work-based tools:

  • 77 percent to use online collaboration platforms

  • 68 percent to use work-based social media

  • 61 percent to use instant messaging applications

2. Manufacturing Apprenticeships

The apprenticeship model is resurging in the US, promising to meet both the demands of today’s employers and the career goals of today’s students. Apprenticeships can work for companies of all sizes – even smaller businesses can tap into this talent pool by partnering with large companies to create local, skills-based apprenticeship programs. Jeannine Kunz, vice president of Tooling U-SME, recently said:

“Private companies should take advantage of the opportunities available to them so they can gain access to this sector of the workforce. We see a significant increase in the number of companies looking to incorporate apprenticeships in their entire workforce development strategy. A lot of what is happening with apprenticeships is taking the strengths of programs of yesteryear and incorporating them with new thinking related to developing people.”

As of the end of 2015, there were nearly 448,000 Registered Apprentices in the US with plans to double the number by 2019. Apprenticeship programs are a win-win scenario:

  • Manufacturers gain early access to eager talent wanting to implement the skills they are learning in a classroom setting. Manufacturers train students and apprentices on specific business workflows, learn the newest innovative technologies directly from the classroom, and maintain the option to hire full-time.

  • Students gain valuable on-the-job training, learning both hard and soft skills necessary to thrive in manufacturing environments from talented mentors. Young workers become invested in organizations, wanting to continue growing in their role.

3. Continuous Training 

Companies should never underestimate the value in training their current workforce on the newest innovations and technologies. 94 percent of manufacturing executives believe that internal employee training and development programs are among the most effective skilled production workforce development strategies. 

This is most evident in smart factories. Digital factories are more about reallocating current jobs rather than simply replacing workers with automated capabilities. An article from Deloitte agrees with me, saying, “The smart factory can cause profound changes in the operations and Information Technology (IT)/Operational Technology (OT) organizations, resulting in a realignment of roles to support new processes and capabilities. Some roles may no longer be necessary. Other roles might be augmented with new capabilities. New, unfamiliar roles will likely emerge.”

Most engineers that I know are enthusiastic to learn new and improved methods of product development and lifecycle management. They are eager to implement new ways of doing things if the change promises to simplify workflows. With the rapid change and evolution of technology, even what students are taught in school now could be outdated in five years. Digitally transformed companies must continually adapt and update their training programs with forward-facing education on the new ways of doing things.

During training opportunities, companies will need to closely manage changes to processes and people. Manufacturing organizations must maintain an agile, adaptive plan that recognizes both technical and interpersonal training. 

Closing the Manufacturing Skills Gap

Manufacturing jobs of Industry 4.0 are becoming more focused on problem solving, programming, communication, and soft skills in an atmosphere of rapid change, real-time updates, and advanced technology. As companies continue to “go digital,” they will transform into agile, responsive, data-driven organizations. The new era of digital manufacturing offers exciting opportunities for enterprises – and people – who are willing to embrace the possibilities and proactively step into the future. 

I compare the future of digital manufacturing to the way that digital technologies have permeated people’s personal lives. Just as many people now see their smartphones as an extension of their minds and personalities, digital manufacturing will lead to ever more intricate levels of connectivity as manufacturers, engineers, and designers acquire digital technology.

About Thomas Spilker

Thomas serves as a solution architect, product expert, and voice of the customer for Vertex Software. He has over 30 years of industry experience in 2D/3D visualization and leading teams in developing, deploying, and
training on PLM software solutions. Thomas served as a Siemens PLM Senior Solution Architect and Digital Manufacturing Product Manager for 14 years where he specialized in delivering 3D digital twin, authoring 3D “graphical” manufacturing process plans, and delivering 3D work instructions to the shop floor. His industry expertise includes aerospace and defense, heavy equipment, high-tech electronics, and automotive.