Passing the knowledge torch with a connected workforce

A connected workforce can build on what the past generations of manufacturers have achieved and also help take companies into the future.

By Michael Masser July 10, 2024
Courtesy: Plex by Rockwell Automation

Connected worker insights

  • The manufacturing sector faces a critical talent shortage, with over 622,000 jobs vacant and 3.8 million more needed within a decade due to an aging workforce.
  • Embracing technology and training younger workers will empower a new generation of connected workers, enhancing efficiency, job satisfaction, and retention in the manufacturing industry.

Sustaining the American manufacturing workforce is a challenge recognized across the industry. The United States Chamber of Commerce reported that as of January of this year 622,000 total manufacturing jobs remained vacant. To make matters worse, The Manufacturing Insitute reported in the next decade the United States manufacturing sector may require approximately 3.8 million additional employees to keep up with production. The clear deficit in available manufacturing talent highlights a nationwide shortage in need of alternate solutions. Addressing the retiring workforce and ensuring no skills are lost as a new funnel of skilled workers develops is critical to the sustained success of the industry.

Part of this equation is addressing the aging manufacturing workforce. According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, the median age of the current manufacturing workforce is about 44.1, while the median number of all employed persons across industries is 42.1. Currently, these statistics also reveal that over 47% of manufacturing jobs are currently held by persons between the ages of 45 to 65+. As this generation of workers phases out of the workforce, manufacturing will be left with a void beyond current staffing needs. To fill that void, organizations will need to prioritize the training and reskilling of younger workers while also capturing the knowledge of the retiring workforce before they leave.

Transitioning to the next generation of connected workers

The manufacturing industry is undergoing a significant shift, driven by a new generation of workers and technology. These individuals come equipped with the skills and training to seamlessly integrate with intelligent technologies. They aren’t passive participants in this process, but rather active contributors.

They also leverage real-time data to guide informed decisions, operate advanced machinery, and collaborate effortlessly with colleagues, both on-site and remotely. The future of manufacturing isn’t about worker replacement, but rather worker empowerment through technology.

This movement of the connected worker is crucial for attracting and retaining talent in the industry. It transforms traditionally repetitive tasks into intellectually stimulating challenges. By equipping workers with technology, nurturing a culture of innovation, and fostering global collaboration, this revolution fosters not only a more efficient and productive workforce, but also a more engaging and fulfilling work environment. This translates to higher job satisfaction and loyalty.

By embracing the connected worker approach, manufacturers can bridge this gap and build a future-proof workforce.

By embracing the connected worker approach, manufacturers can bridge this gap and build a future-proof workforce. Courtesy: Plex by Rockwell Automation

Working in tandem with smart technology

Reinvigorating the manufacturing workforce is not solely dependent on workers. It also is dependent on the ability to upskill and reskill the workforce to operate in tandem with evolving technology. Reports reveal that over the past year, technology investment is up 30%. Manufacturers are increasingly turning to technology to solve a variety of challenges including labor shortages.

As technology advances, employees who possess the skills to utilize it effectively become more valuable assets. By equipping workers with the capabilities to thrive as connected workers, we can bridge the gap between human potential and the evolving landscape of smart manufacturing. In fact, a recent report indicated 94% of manufacturers expect to maintain or grow their workforce as a result of smart manufacturing technology adoption.

The connected worker revolution’s foundation rests on four key pillars:

  1. Person to purpose: When employees understand how their work contributes to a larger goal, they become more engaged and motivated. This can be achieved through clear communication of the company’s mission and vision and highlighting the impact of individual contributions on the bigger picture by tracking key performance indicators (KPIs).

  2. Person to person: Building trust between employees and management is essential. Fostering connections through mentorship initiatives, knowledge-sharing programs, and user-friendly communication tools empowers the workforce to work smarter, not harder. Strong connections create a positive culture that fosters employee retention.

  3. Person to productivity: Equipping workers with the right tools is critical. This includes providing clear work instructions, access to advanced technologies relevant to their roles, efficient equipment and devices

  4. Person to process: Connected workers thrive when they understand the manufacturing process from beginning to end. Investing in training programs that emphasize workflow optimization, preventive maintenance, quality control measures, and continuous skill development ensures safety, efficiency and a deeper understanding of the manufacturing ecosystem.

The answer to the pending skills gap in manufacturing is not to replace the workforce, but to empower them with a connected worker mindset. Manufacturers must prioritize reskilling initiatives that create a sense of purpose, prioritize process understanding and empower workers with the necessary knowledge and equipment to succeed. By fostering a deep understanding of processes and leveraging technology, manufacturers can not only increase their talent pool, but build the next generation of technologically proficient workers, ensuring a thriving future for the industry.

Connected worker model benefits for workers

These initiatives not only support and sustain the manufacturing industry but elevate the skills of individual employees. Research shows 92% of the American job market requires digital skills, yet only one-third of workers have the foundational skills needed to qualify for such roles.

However, research also shows shifting from a non-digital skills to a role requiring at least one digital skill can increase pay by an average of 45%. Highlighting these potential benefits encourages the workforce to adapt and view themselves as partners in the greater technological evolution.

When manufacturers empower their workforce with digital fluency, they create a more qualified applicant pool for positions that combine operational and technical responsibilities. Not only will this address the manufacturing labor shortage but will increase the number of marketable skills of manufacturing employees.
The looming skills gap in American manufacturing presents a challenge, but it also represents an opportunity. By embracing the connected worker approach, manufacturers can bridge this gap and build a future-proof workforce. Attracting younger talent requires an engaging environment that leverages technology for collaboration and problem-solving.

The key to restoring the manufacturing industry lies in fostering a connected worker revolution built on a technically proficient workforce deeply invested in the industry’s success. By focusing on these initiatives, manufacturers can not only address the immediate skills gap but also reinvigorate the manufacturing profession, benefiting both individuals and the future of American manufacturing.

Michael Masser is product manager at Plex by Rockwell Automation. Edited by Chris Vavra, senior editor, Control Engineering, WTWH Media, cvavra@wtwhmedia.com.


Author Bio: Michael Masser is product manager at Plex by Rockwell Automation