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Lack of Skilled Labor? What Manufacturers Can Do Through 2040

The coming years are pivotal for manufacturing, both in North America and globally. With peak birth rates and the 50s-60s Baby Boom long gone, we are starting to see the deleterious effects of a lack of skilled labor. Older workers are retiring from physically demanding, skills-intensive jobs, and too few younger workers are joining up fast enough to have their knowledge – and duties – transferred in time.

In industries like machining, metalworking and related equipment manufacturing, median workforce ages of 48 and above substantially outpace the total labor force’s media age of 42.5. There are approximately 6.3 million manufacturers between the ages of 45 and 64, and only 4.1 million between the ages of 20 and 34. 

Given that it takes about 20 years to create an entry-level worker, the labor force takes about 20 years to experience any fundamental changes. Over those same 20 years, the supply of skilled labor could diminish by as much as 20% – all while demand continues to grow. Since this is a global problem, there’s nowhere you can move your capital and machinery to make things better. You need smarter machines to make the people who are left more productive.

There’s 4 things manufacturers can do to address any long-term lack of skilled labor:

  1. Identify major skills that will be in demand. Invest in productivity growth where it has otherwise lagged.
  2. Get the best of the remaining workforce by attracting them with the best possible technology.
  3. Empower your existing workforce by increasing their productivity.
  4. incorporate autonomous machines that make up any leftover lack of skilled labor through smarter automation.

With these tools in your kit, there’ll be no stopping you!

Identify Key Skills Gaps and Forming a Plan

31% of CNC machine operators, machinery maintenance workers, stationary engineers, engineering technicians and machine setters are over the age of 55. Welding, pipelaying, machinery mechanics, machinists, mechanical and industrial engineers are already in short supply with more than a million open positions on a 14 million person workforce.

Worse yet, these kinds of jobs don’t always achieve the highest possible level of productivity. As often happens among high-mix manufacturers, these skilled workers end up taking on duties that are beneath their core competency and strengths.

Skilled Trades are underrepresented among younger workers, making the current lack of skilled labor more frightening going forward. Source: Adecco.

We know that when a machinist is preparing components for a new batch in a machine shop, they’re most likely to also be the ones stepping into a paint or powder coating booth to finish the job. Smaller shops will almost invariably NOT have single-purpose painters or coaters on site. Larger shops can rarely realize the quality they desire when extensive training and high turnover have simply become a fact of life in high-mix finishing departments.

Mass manufacturers are able to use solutions like robots in these scenarios, and by extension they often attract the best of the workforce. However, trends like mass-customization are already taking off – even in heavy industrial sectors like precision steelmaking. The lack of skilled labor in these scenarios can only be made up by the right kind of technology. Identifying which skills will be most in demand- welding, machining, coating or all of the above – is the first step to figuring out where you’ll benefit most from new forms of automation.

Understanding Where the Biggest “Optionality” Is

Manufacturers are already investing – even over-investing – in solutions to address the lack of skilled labor. While more machines and capability is always nice, understanding how these machines can function more intelligently is the most cost-effective approach.

Nobody can predict the future, but incorporating flexibility in your plans will allow you to best adapt. Flexible manufacturing systems offer the best investment in response to continuing skilled labor shortages because they can be optimized as your customers needs change without new capital expenditure. What’s more, they have a call-and-response relationship with your production needs. Instead of requiring more skill with more use, these systems actually decrease your skills needs as they are adapted and optimized to your production. 

Industrial automation is evolving rapidly. Thinking about where your target is moving and how flexible, intelligent machines can overcome the changes in the workforce is critical. Source: McKinsey.

Autonomous skilled robots are a perfect example of this. For value-added spray processes, it’s the equivalent of keeping the paint gun and the arm of a skilled worker in place, but not needing them to actually to the job themselves. Autonomous robots don’t need programming, which means getting them to work is just a matter of setting goals and optimizing the output. Paint too thick? Change the setting. Got faraday caging on your powder? There’s another setting for that. 

All-in-all, autonomous robots can alleviate the lack of skilled labor without actually antagonizing your skilled workers. You’ll be surprised to find out that, due to the efficiency, intuitiveness and overall pain-saving nature of these systems – no matter the parts your processing – workers actually rush to try it out and seek to get to know the systems better. 

Ramping Up Your Reputation as an Employer

Across a variety of industries, younger workers expect the same technology-first solutions in the workplace that they had in the home, in their education and in their personal lives. Young people want to work with the best solutions. Nearly half of manufacturing workers (48%) wish their workplace technology performed just as well as their personal tech, and 30% say that outdated tools make their jobs more difficult. 

While plenty of people are willing to a dirty job, very few are willing or happy to do an unnecessarily difficult one. By putting employees in the best position to succeed, you make yourself the most attractive workplace possible. Just as autonomous robots might excite employees to work with technology that was once seen as science fiction (in our own lifetimes, at that), the more high upside, financially workable, advanced and flexible systems you incorporate, the more likely you are to overcome your lack of skilled labor for the generation to come. 

Advanced technology encourages workers – the young most of all – that their jobs are good and will only get better. Source: Kronos.

At the same time, this also encourages engineering talent and great upper management teams to come your way. Where the best machines and capital are in place, the smartest most resourceful people will come, making it easier for your – whether a business owner or an production leader – to get your job done. 

Bring Forward the Talent You Need to Succeed

Ultimately, we don’t know what the future will look like exactly, but we know that it does take about 20 years for people to start becoming somewhat productive in the workforce. At this time, we don’t see birth rates – or even immigration rates – to support the workforce of the future. Autonomous robots and other flexible manufacturing systems can fill the gap, and without the long-term cash risks that are seen with so many other systems. 

So, what do you think? Have you seen risks get out of hand? Are you struggling to keep up with the pace of retirements and goodbye parties? Drop us a line and tell us what you think here

With AutonomyOS™ and AutonomyStudio™, it’s never been easier to deploy an autonomous robotic system. Using 3D Perception with AI-based Task Planning and Motion Planning, manufacturing engineers and integrators can configure autonomous robotic systems for value-added processes that allow manufacturers to achieve more consistency and flexibility in production than ever before

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