Learn how manufacturers respond to increased market demand by utilizing employee upskilling opportunities.
Manufacturers across virtually all sectors are responding to re-energized market demand, and assembly lines are revving up. But many of those shop floors are beginning to look very different from just months ago, with a smaller workforce. Pre-pandemic, the presence of fewer workers on the shop floor was evidence of the hiring challenges of low unemployment and worker shortages. But in today's new operating environments, the focus is on protecting workers' health – with smaller, socially distanced teams and limited interaction.
Far from a hurdle, many manufacturers are turning the shop floor requirements of post-pandemic recovery into assets for their operations and for their place in the competitive landscape. Their answer for many of those requirements – and opportunities – is automation.
Manufacturing leaders have long been investing in order to realize the advantages of automating their shop floors. Along with improving workplace safety, they have seen additional returns on their digital equipment and process investments. Those include reduced labor costs, increased productivity and product quality, and reduced lead times. Before the pandemic, automation served to counteract the skilled labor shortage caused by low unemployment. Post pandemic, automation continues to provide solutions, even though labor issues have shifted: workforce shortages are now more often the result of absenteeism due to health concerns, for example. What hasn't changed: a persistently limited supply of skilled workers.
Now, as recovery builds momentum, leaders are refreshing their plans to aggressively invest in digital transformation and the upskilling of their workforce to remain competitive in their sector. Consultants at PwC suggest learning from leaders who succeeded through previous crises — such as the 2008 recession — and emerged the strongest. They point to those who made aggressive moves during recovery and saw rewards in competitive advantage as a result. Those moves included deploying technologies that drive cost competitiveness, flexibility and innovation.
Digital Transformation Learning Curve Gears Up
As environmental health and safety analysts frame the speed of changes demanded in response to the pandemic: The world transformed more in the second quarter of 2020 than it had for decades. With those changes has come a need for upskilling the manufacturing team and building a digital workforce as companies speed up moves to automation.
While leaders consider the costs for both new equipment and shop floor redesign, they must also craft budgets and strategies to train and build buy-in from their teams. Both elements are critical to ensuring those investments return value and competitive advantage. Harvard Business Review cites research that puts a price tag on employee training and reskilling at $24,800, on average, per person across the U.S.
Getting the Team on Board Through Two-Way Communication
As experts from Microsoft have learned, cultural transformation is the linchpin in any digital transformation strategy, and manufacturing is no exception. They say the companies that build cultures that enable change will differentiate themselves in their respective markets.
The first hurdle of cultural change: worker reluctance to embrace automation. As Inc. magazine columnist Erik Sherman has defined the challenge, the words “automation” and “robotics” can cause apprehension and poor health among workforces and companies concerned about the role robots and automated processes will play in eliminating the need for human work and contact.
Coaches and experts in change management agree – employee involvement is key to tamping down apprehension and resistance to automation. And so do leaders in family-owned manufacturing businesses. In a podcast on upskilling, the CEO of DeGeest Steel Works puts it simply: One of the best steps for an organization starting down the road to automation is to gather employees in a problem-solving group. Not only do you identify the points in your process where automation can make the biggest difference, but you also start developing problem solvers across your company.
Psychologist and contributor for Smart Robotics, Laura Schilperoort agrees and adds that involving employees at the beginning of a move to automation is a tool for preventing resistance to change – much easier than taking away resistance once it has a foothold in the workforce.
Employee engagement in the process of identifying and implementing automation can boost not only productivity but worker desire to do their best work, according to research by consulting firm PwC.
4 More Upskilling Tips for Leaders
Once automation needs and the training required to build an appropriately upskilled workforce are identified, leaders can put in place programs that produce high-functioning problem solvers working across the shop floor.
Steps to consider include:
- Making personalized plans – when each employee has their own personal skills training and development program, they can take charge. PwC points to this ownership as critical.
- Including HR in the upskilling plan – by harnessing the HR team's experience and resources, you can choose the most effective programs for your workforce, track the progress of training approaches and draw conclusions about their effectiveness.
- Leveraging industry association programs – organizations such as the National Association of Manufacturers and their Federation for Advanced Manufacturing Education, the public-private Manufacturing Extension Partnership or the Association for Manufacturing Excellence offer resources and events to support your upskilling programs.
- Keeping it short – advisors tell the Wall Street Journal to make training short enough and achievable enough so that workers develop real skills and companies see a return on their investment.
Upskilling is Here to Stay
Leaders facing the uncertainties of pandemic recovery and the new demands being placed on their people and processes should be assured they are not alone. A McKinsey survey on the future of the workforce shows that nine in 10 executives say their companies face skill gaps, either now or in the next five years. And only a third report their company is prepared for workforce disruptions driven by technology and market trends.
The bottom line: Upskilling or reskilling is clearly a management issue that is critical for manufacturers as they roar back to life post-COVID-19 and reclaim a competitive stance. Also clear is that investments in a high-performing workforce will continue to claim their place in the business plan and budget for years to come. As you consider your team's skill needs and the resources necessary to meet those needs, be sure to leverage experienced advisors and resources to ensure your organization realizes a solid return on its upskilling investment.