The skills gap problem with automation

A senior factory worker studying the machinery and taking notes in a notebook

The nature of jobs is changing as we shift towards an automated workplace, and that’s leading to a skills gap. Mature workers who are used to doing things a certain way will find it difficult to manage the change without further training and education. Meanwhile, those entering the workforce need to seek out different educational paths to arm them with the skills needed for jobs that are not what they used to be. 

An estimated 4.6 million manufacturing jobs will be created in the U.S. over the next decade, yet more than half of them won’t be filled because of a lack of qualified talent. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics says that close to 400,000 manufacturing sector jobs were vacant as of March 2018, unmoved from 2017. Not surprisingly, the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) says more than 80 percent of manufacturers are having trouble finding skilled talent to fill many of their Industry 4.0 jobs. In the EU, a report from the Joint Research Centre (JRC) finds that almost 40 percent of the labor force possesses little or no digital skills, and there haven’t been much efforts to promote the teaching of non-cognitive skills. 

This isn’t just about developing a nation of coders: soft skills like critical thinking, problem-solving and project management are also necessary

How can educational institutions prepare students?

Those working in manufacturing and other similar jobs today require the same (or similar) skills you might need for more glamorous Silicon Valley-type software positions. Brian Fortney, Global Product Manager for Customer Training at Rockwell Automation, says the great enemy of manufacturers is “not foreign cost competition, it’s the high school guidance counselor.”

Attention in these industries needs to shift to IT, programming, AI, robotics and other automation subjects. But this isn’t just about developing a nation of coders: soft skills like critical thinking, problem-solving and project management are also necessary, along with digital literacy. Alan Mindlin, technical manager at electronic manufacturing services company Morey, says students need to have a strong background in math, measurements and computer skills.

Today’s engineers, for example, need to learn how to work in predictive maintenance, logistics via robotics, industrial IoT, AI and advanced analytics. Meanwhile, assembly workers must be skilled in operations management and controlling robots. This requires an adjustment in the curriculum to better prepare graduates for what’s to come.

Some educational institutions are already taking appropriate steps. Rockwell and Yaskawa Motoman have joined the Robotics and Advanced Manufacturing Technology Education Collaborative (RAMTEC) to create a STEM-aligned curriculum and training related to Industry 4.0. 

Mindlin believes that rather than offer on-the-job training (or in addition to it), people need more hands-on experience with the technology while still in school so they can be better prepared once they start a job. Emerson is one manufacturing company that’s doing just that, having invested in labs that students can use to learn about automation technologies in a lifelike facility and take part in simulations. 

Two female college students building a machine in a science, robotics, or engineering class

Re-skilling existing employees

Another side of the coin requires “upskilling” an existing workforce. 

“The transition will be a big jump for employees,” says Mindlin, “so companies need to provide a lot of hands-on guidance to ensure their employees know they’re being taken care of in this transition.” He suggests assigning mentors who already possess the skills for a position to address questions or concerns. 

Companies are developing resources like free e-learning content that their workers can access, and some are helping employees head back to school for re-training. Siemens, for example, offers its employees custom training programs. 

Governments can (and should) get involved as well. The Government of Singapore provides incentives for its employees to complete upskilling training courses. The Government of Canada offers employment insurance so people can take time off work to further their studies, along with financial support up to $1,000. And in the EU, the Digital Europe programme aims to invest in strategies that address digital challenges, focusing on areas like computing, AI, and cybersecurity in an effort to combat the skills gaps. 

Ironically, there’s also a reverse issue: since not everything is automated yet, workers who retire and take legacy skills with them are being re-hired as part of the new gig economy to help teach the new wave of laborers about operational efficiencies with non-automated segments of the business, too. 

Closing the gap

During the panel discussion “Who is afraid of automation?” at Collision Conference in Toronto earlier this year, Daphne Koller, CEO and founder of machine learning company Insitro, summed it up best. “The skill you need the most is the skill to learn new skills as categories or jobs disappear and other ones emerge.” 

Today’s students have the difficult task of preparing themselves for a suite of jobs that don’t even exist yet while trying to carve out their career paths. Meanwhile, current workers not yet ready for retirement must add continuing education and training to their schedules in order to keep up with the new and changing demands of their jobs. 

Many manufacturers now realize that closing that skills gap through learning and development programs and training is their best bet to combating this challenge.

Alan Mindlin, Morey

There’s a tremendous opportunity for the next generation to capitalize on the need for high-skilled, automation-savvy workers for Industry 4.0. These jobs require more technical and soft skills. With the right education, active participation from vendors in the educational process, and encouragement for the next generation to pursue career paths they might not otherwise have considered, qualified talent can emerge for the millions of new jobs coming and the existing ones that are evolving over the next 10 years.

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