A Circular Problem: Labor Shortages and Expanded Manufacturing Automation

The continued issue of labor shortages in the manufacturing sector can also create problems for companies that want to expand automation in their operations. Can OEMs help?

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Labor shortage in manufacturing is not a new problem, and both large and small operations have been challenged over the years to find and retain both skilled and unskilled labor.

For manufacturers who want to expand automation in their operations, that process can be hindered by the lack of skilled labor, in particular. And paradoxically, while expanded automation often reduces the number of employees needed at a facility, it may also increase the required skill level of certain employees, which then may create new labor needs.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought the labor shortage into sharper focus, because while many industries in the manufacturing sector were deemed “essential” and continued to produce, many employees have been hesitant to continue working, creating an even more difficult situation for employers who need to hire new employees.

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According to a new report by PMMI Business Intelligence and sourced from government data and ThomasNet, the cumulative unemployment rate in the U.S. fell from 14.7% in April to 13.3% in May, and despite 30% of manufacturers stating they are currently seeking new hires during the COVID-19 pandemic, the overall employment rate in manufacturing has contracted sharply, declining 19.1% from January to April.

The report also states that according to Deloitte, the manufacturing sector in the U.S. will need to fill as many as 4.6 million jobs over the course of the coming decade. But it is predicted that only 2.1 million of those openings will be filled by properly skilled employees, leaving a labor shortfall of 2.5 million positions.

See: Robotics Special Report: Addressing Labor Shortages can ‘Help Feed the World’

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Another related hurdle to implementing more automation in operations is the lack of project execution resources. Without adequate skilled labor, manufacturers lack the resources and knowledge necessary to identify and execute new automation projects. And a lack of skilled labor means fewer internal resources can be easily devoted to carrying out a new automation strategy without pulling from existing operations. Manufacturers are then forced to determine which personnel to allocate to a given project, without interrupting existing operations.

With no magic wand to create a sufficiently skilled labor pool, OEMs and suppliers are called to consider design strategies to assist manufacturers. One such suggestion by CPGs is that OEMs simplify equipment features as much as possible and explore changes such as streamlined machine interfaces that feature graphic-driven prompts/explanations that can help employees make correct selections without the need for a deep understanding of programming or digital skills.

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Machine maintenance could also be simplified so that employees could be directed to perform maintenance or cleaning tasks with guided, demonstrated steps that would mitigate the need for specialized knowledge.

To access this FREE report and learn more about automation in operations, download below.

Source: PMMI Business Intelligence, “Automation Timeline: The Drive Toward 4.0 Connectivity in Packaging and Processing”

See PMMI Workforce resources by clicking here.

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