The Opportunity Presented by Industrial Workforce Shortages

June 19, 2023
When advanced manufacturing projects are executed, existing employees gain new skills, take on higher value and more engaging work, and leave behind to automation the repeatable or mundane tasks they found disenchanting.

Spring and fall are traditional times for industry conferences. At these events we’ve talked about Industry 4.0, cybersecurity, digital transformation, IT/OT convergence, digital twins and the impact of AI, specifically ChatGPT and its use cases in industrial manufacturing.  Each of these topics is fascinating but one message has dominated my thoughts recently and I can’t quite shake it.

That thought is: How in the world are we going to execute on all these incredible advances in industrial manufacturing and automation without people?

Of course, using automation is the obvious answer.  But behind every robot or other automated system is an incredible amount of engineering ingenuity to create, design, build, program, install and maintain those systems.

Workforce shortages

Based on the daunting statistics we’ve been hearing for years now about the skills gaps and looming retirements of vast—often undocumented—institutional knowledge, it’s enough to keep anyone up at night wondering how in the world we’re going to get it all done.

But when I have momentary lapses of optimism about this, I am reminded that some of the solutions are right before our eyes and we’ve been exploring them for years.

Many years ago, when my now-grown sons were in late elementary and middle school, I wanted to get them involved in STEM activities, particularly robotics.  Finding none, I saw a need for programs to inspire young people in the areas of interest I had growing up.  That led me to help launch the inaugural FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Tehcnology) Lego League robotics competition in Nebraska in 2009-2010 in conjunction with our local Nebraska Extension (Nebraska 4-H) organization. 

Those initial robotics teams have graduated from FIRST Lego League to FIRST Tech Challenge. Students are excelling and competing around the world. Last month I met a team named Rebel Robotics from our home state of Nebraska who won the first place Think Award at FTC World’s competition among a field of 200 teams.

What a full circle moment and an honor it was to showcase what we’re doing as a company to help these bright young minds, knowing they are ready to take the world by storm and that I may have had a small part in fanning that flame of encouragement. It’s one piece of the puzzle, but STEM education and pouring time and resources into young people isn’t the only thing we need to be considering.

Out-of-the-box thinking

I continue to be surprised by some of the innovative thinking happening now in terms of proactively trying to fill the catastrophic gaps we know we’re about to face as an industry.  For example, Andrew Crowe, often referred to as the leader of the New American Manufacturing Renaissance, said (and I’m paraphrasing): I realized I worked in an industry of employers needing employees and I lived in a community of people needing work. I could be the bridge to connect the two.

Since that realization he has followed his mission to help “fill crucial positions in manufacturing facilities across the United States, as well as piqued interests in the next generation of job seekers and empowering men and women in blue collar positions all over the country.”

It’s that kind of initiative and forward thinking that will propel us forward as an industry.

But how can we use our expertise not only in technology and networking systems but also in leveraging relationships with trusted partners and collective agencies in our homes states, countries and across the globe to come together to solve this problem and raise the bar on our industry together one worker at a time?

Leveraging automation expertise

According to Michael Johnson, chief operating officer and executive vice president of the Nebraska Chamber of Commerce, “Nebraska manufacturers, like so many in the U.S., are experiencing a double-edged sword: On one hand, economic factors such as reshoring of American manufacturing are driving incredible opportunity for production growth but historic lows in unemployment are holding back the ability to produce at full capacity. Two tools manufacturers can use to unlock productivity are automation and advanced manufacturing practices. When advanced manufacturing projects are executed, existing employees can gain new skills, take on higher value and more engaging work, and leave behind to automation the repeatable or mundane tasks they found disenchanting. As technology evolves, manufacturers large and small are wise to engage with system integrators in an ongoing fashion to understand what their automation journey can look like.”

And while companies can engage with automation and control systems integrators to help them move their journey forward, system integrators can help the cause by embracing young engineers and interns hoping to enter the engineering field by giving them experiential learning opportunities. When they work alongside experienced professionals and experience the projects onsite and meet the talented people who have been running these crucial systems for decades, there is a sense of mission they seem to embrace.

At Huffman Engineering as we welcomed the intern class of 2023 into our company this summer we explored this on a micro level—we used ChatGPT to write our intro to industrial automation. But only a portion of the generated content applied directly to what we do as control system integrators, and we used this as a perfect dynamic example to our interns.

ChatGPT is a great tool, but we want their work here to be about each intern using their brain and supplementing it with tools like ChatGPT because the interns are the resource we’re investing in, not just the technology. People are truly any organization’s greatest resource.

While we welcome automation and other advances in technology with open arms, let’s not forget the engine that drives technology—people. And let’s not forget the design thinking required to equip and inspire a new generation of leaders to automate us well into the future alongside every new technological innovation.

Keith Mandachit, PE, is engineering manager at Huffman Engineering Inc., certified members of the Control System Integrators Association (CSIA). For more information about Huffman Engineering, visit its profile on the Industrial Automation Exchange.

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