Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Effectively Utilizing Advanced Manufacturing Requires a New Approach to Closing Skills Gap

Advances in manufacturing technologies are fundamentally changing the nature of work at manufacturing enterprises. As new technologies are deployed, a large number of workers find themselves with obsolete skills and lose jobs. On the other hand, companies that are contemplating deploying new manufacturing technologies are unable to find workers with the right skills and hence many available manufacturing positions remain vacant.

The rate of rapid changes in manufacturing technologies is pointing to a future where major manufacturing technology refresh will occur every five to ten years. This means that a worker will need to face the challenge of skill obsolescence multiple times in a typical career. Overcoming this challenge using the current workforce education and training paradigm is not practical. Not finding a scalable solution to this challenge will lead to a major disruption to the way of life for the middle class.

Over the last few years, I have interacted with workers, companies, and colleges and discussed challenges and opportunities in the manufacturing workforce training area. Based on my analysis, the main challenges are the following:

  1. Acquiring new manufacturing skills often requires six months or more. Displaced workers are economically vulnerable and simply do not have cash reserves to complete the training. 
  2. Many displaced workers do not have math and programing prerequisites to learn advanced manufacturing technologies. Completing these prerequisites takes extra time. 
  3. Many advanced manufacturing technologies are expensive. Colleges and training institutes are unable to acquire them in sufficient quantities to rapidly build the capacity needed to retrain the workforce. 
  4. Workers are unable to travel to far away training locations for long periods of times to complete the training due to family constraints and/or economic considerations.
The workforce retraining will need to occur frequently. Therefore, simply relying on government grants to sustain the current training models will not suffice. Manufacturing enterprises have embraced innovations and learned how to deliver personalized products at low costs with highly compressed schedules. Once we start viewing the workforce training enterprise as a part of the manufacturing supply chain, we realize that many principles that led to significant efficiency gains in manufacturing will be applicable to the work training as well. We should aim to realize a new workforce training enterprise with the following attributes:
  1. Enable trainees to participate in training remotely. 
  2. Accelerate the training process. 
  3. Reduce time needed to complete prerequisites. 
  4. Leverage spare capacity on existing machines to reduce capital investments.
Unfortunately, there is no simple solution to meet these needs. The solution will require development of new technologies and pedagogical tools to accelerate learning, commitment from individuals to life-long learning, and cultures at companies to incentivize acquisition of new skills. Government will also need to provide education based tax credits. Colleges will need to master the agile manufacturing principles to quickly roll out new programs to meet emerging needs. Addressing the workforce training challenge this will be a step towards solving the most pressing societal problem faced by the advanced economies.