An organization’s workforce needs digital dexterity – a degree of data literacy, visualization skills, and analytical capability.

Technologies, processes and systems are transforming manufacturing. Its workforce needs to develop and evolve too – fast.

A recent media headline conveys a sense of urgency needed to resolve the paradox:  “U.S. factories desperate for workers, even as ranks of jobless remains high.”

The problem has been building for over a decade. Now, as digitization takes deeper root in the manufacturing sector, the skills shortage has reached a crisis point. ‘Attracting and retaining a quality workforce’ is seen as a primary business challenge by no less than 83% of respondents in the Quarter 4, 2021 National Association of Manufacturers’ Outlook Survey. Close to 50% say that the issue is costing their company new business and forfeited revenue opportunities.

Digital skills development should be understood as the key to unlocking improvement, on all sorts of levels and in directions not yet imagined,” says Sharon Brand, Content Architect and Senior Technical Writer at integrative improvement specialists Competitive Capabilities International (CCi).

How should manufacturers refocus their talent strategies to improve the situation?

Define the gaps

An effective talent development programme must be framed with reference to, and aligned with, business strategy and operations planning. This will distill how digital is reshaping the organization’s specific job roles and responsibilities, and map an appropriate response. 

This involves some imagination about the future. Skills development must be matched to the expectations and potential of manufacturing’s new frontiers. Consider, for example, how far the organization may be from next-level automation in its major production lines and processes. The answer, probably, is quite close; in which case today’s machine operators will need to progress from supervising specific pieces of machinery to being multiskilled connected users of collaborative and autonomous robots, artificial intelligence, machine learning, autonomous machines and augmented reality technologies. They will need to have low-code programming knowledge of process monitoring, control and automation. Operators will need knowledge of data management, cybersecurity and advanced analytics, and be able to interpret and evaluate predictions generated by data models.

Similarly, the enterprise may be ramping up digital twinning projects and other cyber-physical systems. Currently, responsibility for these may rest with a multidisciplinary team led by an industrial engineer. But, soon, a Twinning Engineer or Digital Twin Engineer – responsible for creating a virtual replica of the physical characteristics and functioning of an Internet-of-Things (IoT)-connected product – will be a dedicated role. Among many skills, this Twinning Engineer will need to have an aptitude for applying augmented reality (AR) and mixed reality (MR) tools, and be adept at using cutting-edge software design programmes.

Already unfolding is the integration of operational and information technology, necessitating a new breed of operations specialist, sometimes described as an Operational Technology Systems Integrator (OT-SI). OT-SIs need a deep understanding of their particular industry, they must be highly skilled in the workings of the manufacturer’s plant and machinery, including developments in process automation, integration, interoperability and – in order to capitalize on the integrated digitization of the value network – must have extensive skills in the traditional IT domain.

Assessments such as these will guide the talent strategy balance between recruitment, retraining and upskilling, and the redesign of jobs.

Build all-round data capabilities

One of the by-products of the 4IR is its acceleration of data generation and accumulation. The result is that manufacturers have a rich bank of information available to drive operational improvements, to probe for paths to innovation, and to create value uplifts throughout the supply chain. There’s a proviso: data’s usefulness is capped by the skills of the people tasked with harnessing its potential. The organization’s workforce, at all levels, needs digital dexterity – a degree of data literacy, visualization skills, and analytical capability.

Engage the workforce as part of culture transformation

Recalibrating capabilities and skills have a broader context. Instilling a culture of performance, digital inquisitiveness, interdisciplinary cocreation and knowledge democratisation is vital to gear advantage in an increasingly competitive global marketplace. Equally, manufacturers cannot ignore the trend towards rehumanizing work. Businesses as a whole are transforming, an important part of which is towards creating more meaningful work for people. “Even Internet-of-Things technology and services experts tell me they struggle to keep up with the pace of innovation,” says Brand. “So the essence of what a career in manufacturing is, today, will be completely different in a few decades. Employees need to be engaged to participate in this journey.”

Expand the learning and development ecosystem 

Future production technologies and tools are likely to arrive in accelerating waves – and the same projection can be applied to new digital systems, programs and platforms applied upstream and downstream from the manufacturing hub. This means that manufacturers will need to ensure not only that mature digital skills are distributed throughout the organization, but that there is a mechanism to cope with the fact that the required skillsets will keep advancing.

From partnering with technology service providers or industry bodies such as The Manufacturing Institute, to formal programmes structured by tertiary education institutions, or collaborations within  the World Economic Forum’s Global Network of Advanced Manufacturing Hubs, manufacturers have multiple avenues to build a talent ecosystem which, itself, can evolve. “Training and self-learning is now a forever thing,” says Brand, noting that the value of people’s skills halves every five years. “Companies should design holistic skills development programmes and partnerships for the long run.”

Smart manufacturing needs smart talent

This should include a focus on so-called soft skills because these, too, will gain greater importance. Digital operating systems, networked supply chains and partnerships, and fluid rather than siloed or hierarchical organizational structures: these require the integration of people, processes and practices. On top of digital acumen, the people leading and managing world-class manufacturers of the future will need to develop effective communication and critical thinking skills, the ability to build teams, manage conflict, and lead with empathy.

“Digital transformation is also a talent transformation,” says Brand. “Sustained initiatives are needed to gear up the skillsets of all employees and leaders. Building digital proficiency is as important as the technology itself.” Indeed, the vision and promise of next-generation manufacturing depends upon both.

Book a demo to find out how CCi can help close digital skills gaps in your organization and transform the capabilities of your workforce.

CCi is a privately held global company that enables organizations to deliver sustainable results across the value chain through TRACC, a solution for continuous, integrated improvement.