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Addressing the skilled worker shortage through modern technology

By Infor

The shortage of skilled workers has become a major obstacle for manufacturers, one that is interfering with potential growth and generating considerable frustration. While there are no simple answers to this problem, modern technology does offer some tools to help cope with the day-to-day challenges as well as some strategies which will help long-term resolution of the underlying problems. 

Discuss these strategies in more detail with experts and peers at the EEF National Manufacturing Conferenceon 20 February 2018 – an event Infor is sponsoring. 


How did we get here?

Addressing the worker shortage starts with understanding the driving forces. Today’s current severe shortage of skilled workers did not happen overnight, generated by one trigger incident. Multiple factors converged at once to escalate and intensify the issues, also making them difficult to counteract. Now, the self-perpetuating skills gap crises could possibly derail industry recovery—or at least severely dampen optimism when it’s needed most. The critical question remains: How can manufacturers step up and seize unfolding opportunities when the existing workforce is stretched past capacity and open positions are going unfilled because of lack of qualified applicants? 


Let’s look at the top influencers first:

-The aging population. Workers that made the post war industrial era thrive are now reaching retirement age. And we haven’t hit the peak yet. A McKinsey reports says that by 2030, there will be at least 300 million more people aged 65 years and older than there were in 2014. An aging population means fewer workers available for employment.

-Manufacturing has lost its luster. Today’s millennial generation tends to think manufacturing plants are dark, dirty, scary places to work with little future. Waves of plant closings and lay-offs during the global recession generated skepticism among potential workers. Even as the global economy improves, lack of stability is still a concern, keeping some job candidates from considering careers in manufacturing.

-Fear of automation. The hype around automation, robotics, machine learning, and artificial intelligence is a doubled-edged sword. On one side, these technologies portray manufacturing as exciting and innovative. But, on the flip side, automation seems to put the workforce at risk. What jobs are safe from becoming automated?  

-Not enough STEM graduates. Education experienced a shift in focus away from Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) courses and toward liberal arts programs. This 20-year pendulum swing generated fewer design engineering graduates. At the same time, the phenomenal growth in computer science and technology fields put graduates in those fields in high demand. There just are not enough to go around.

-The lost art of vocational schools, apprenticeships, and on-the-job training. These programs, once a critical part of sustaining the workforce, have faded away, replaced by the perception that a three-year degree from a traditional university is the only route to a rewarding career. 


What can manufacturers do?

Of the five factors mentioned here, some, such as the aging population, are simply beyond the control of individual manufacturers. Changing perceptions and educating the public are major endeavors that will take collective efforts of many groups, from unions to trade associations. Manufacturers can support and contribute to these efforts, though, helping to portray the industry in its best possible light.  

Some of the influencing factors can be tackled by manufacturers. Reviving apprenticeships is one example. Manufacturers can enact programs to up-skill existing workers, cross-training, and mentor recent graduates. 

Put technology to use. Technology offers manufacturers two main ways to counteract the shortage of skills workers. First, technology can help stretch current resources further, making the current workforce as productive and efficient as possible. Secondly, technology can help manufacturers recruit and retain the best of the job candidates, including millennials. Let’s look closer at the role technology can play on overcoming the worker shortage.

Streamline processes. Eliminating extra steps, ending redundancy, and preventing delays and gaps in communication will go a long way in making your lean organization ultra-efficient. Modern ERP solutions push relevant contextual data to users, speeding decision-making. Users no longer have to hunt for forms or rely on memorizing best practices and procedures. Workflows and escalation procedures can be built into the system so much of the process control, compliance, quality control, and tracking or monitoring for details can happen automatically. 

Optimize tools. Technology has brought many new tools to manufacturing, drastically changing the amount of time and effort involved in completing some tasks. Examples of dramatic time savers:

-Configure-Price-Quote tools for speeding quotes and design of highly configured products
-Product Life Cycle Management for speeding product launches
-Warehouse Management Solutions for improving efficiency in managing inventory
-Mobility Solutions so that your workforce can access data 24/7, from virtually anywhere
-Enterprise Asset Management Solutions for managing preventive maintenance of plant assets

Support and train existing employees. Manufacturers can also use technology to train, cross-train, and support the existing force so that employees can build on existing skills, become certified in new areas, and play more than one role, when needed. Look for modern ERP solutions with knowledge banks, learning modules, and ways to store/access support aids like videos and help files.

Work the way we live. Workers today expect to find the same technology in their workplace as they use in their everyday lives. They expect the software they use to be as intuitive as their phone, and as insightful as the ecommerce sites they visit. Outdated ERP solutions with cumbersome user interfaces will frustrate employees.


Concluding thoughts

While the shortage of skilled workers will not be resolved quickly, manufacturers can take steps to alleviate the critical symptoms. It starts with showing employees and job candidates there is an interest in providing them with tools for learning and expanding their skills, especially in digital technologies. While manufacturers may ask workers to wear more than one hat at times or fill in to cover vacancies, there are also tools to help every employee be as efficient as possible. Giving employees these time-saving tools will prevent burn-out. And, providing workers with software with a consumer-like interface will also help create a positive work environment, empowering workers, encouraging them to be highly engaged.   

Register for the EEF National Manufacturing Conference, sponsored by Infor, to secure your spot at your choice of four peer learning workshops on themes of cybersecurity, securing your post-Brexit workforce, smart energy and trade.

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