A Digital-First Factory Floor is Key to Attracting STEM Talent

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Originally published in Industry Today

Like most industrial sectors, manufacturing finds it difficult to attract and retain skilled workers. Digital enablement may be the answer.

A 2018 study by The Manufacturing Institute and Deloitte shows that while 4.6 million manufacturing jobs will come online over the next 10 years, 2.4 million of them will remain unfilled because of the skills gap.

For manufacturers, this is a huge wake-up call.

The origin of this gap is the departure of veteran workers and the influx of newly minted millennial recruits who come armed with different skills, attitudes and expectations. In the U.S., there are currently 53 million working Baby Boomers who are nearing retirement (and taking their institutional knowledge with them), while 56 million Millennials, who comprise the largest generation in the U.S. labor force, are beginning to establish their careers.

There’s also the competition from major tech giants – the Googles and Facebooks of the world – that makes it tremendously difficult for industrial companies to attract and retain employees with STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) backgrounds. Their locations, benefits and overall “cool factor” often trump the perception – accurate or not – of what it’s like working at a manufacturing facility or plant.

Something needs to change, and it’s not fancy espresso machines or on-site gyms.

Rather, one solution could be investing in employee technology that makes it easy for deskless employees to stay connected to their teammates, collaborate in real-time, and work with greater efficiency, safety and quality than ever before.

The Reality of Working in Manufacturing Today

We all know that working at a manufacturing facility is nothing like working in your typical office setting. Employees are positioned throughout the factory, managing and directing operations, supporting other personnel, working directly with sophisticated machines, and monitoring the performance of advanced robotics assigned to highly repetitive and often dangerous tasks.

When employees start a new shift, they’re often picking up work from where their colleagues left off, requiring them to spend time getting up to speed. There is also the tedious nature of the insurmountable paperwork, audits and administrative tasks that can hinder productivity. Collecting information manually – that are then filed away in three-ring binders – also results in a massive lack of transparency, hindering the ability for employees and management alike to identify issues and make timely, data-driven improvements.

What about these realities is appealing to young, talented engineers embarking on their careers? Not much. And office perks aren’t going to save the day; these workers don’t spend a whole lot of time in a typical office environment.

The deskless workers of today need more support to do their jobs well, and that’s only going to come from technology, not more hands on deck. Top talent is used to succeeding, but when an industry like manufacturing has so many daily roadblocks infringing on what their own STEM talent is capable of, it makes a career in that industry a weak sell.

How Worker Connectivity Changes the Game

The answer to recruiting more STEM talent is complex. But one investment that will certainly make manufacturing jobs more attractive is to offer digital, mobile-first tools that enable greater worker connectivity. This results in work output that is more consistent, transparent and dynamic – key dimensions that younger, tech-minded employees expect and want in their jobs.

These tools provide step-by-step procedural guidance through different processes and protocols to boost worker safety, productivity and quality, and to ensure work is being done correctly and with care. They give on-the-floor employees instant insight into exactly where each shift left off and what next steps are needed, cutting down the time it takes new shift workers to get up to speed when they arrive on site.

As applications that are accessed via mobile devices, these tools make it easy to share content and collaborate with other workers in real-time, whether they’re on site or not – a huge improvement from the current reality where workers often have to physically trek back and forth across the factory floor to communicate with colleagues. For a generation well-versed in texting, “Slack”-ing and other instant communication channels, this is not a nice-to-have; it’s an expectation.

All of the visibility and streamlining that technology brings to each frontline worker makes managing work, and managing others, more achievable. The data, alone, that technology can capture gives workers and managers more information to apply to the decisions they make. After all, trying to draw conclusions based on few handwritten inputs is not nearly as gratifying or accurate as decisions based on real-time data collected digitally and presented in dynamic dashboards.

Ultimately, the data can help accelerate continuous improvement cycles and generate real-time adaptive workflows, further accelerating employee productivity and closing the digital divide between the top floor and the shop floor.

In short, to make the manufacturing career path worthwhile for those with STEM backgrounds, manufacturers need to invest in digital tools for frontline workers and show that they understand how this new generation of workers want and expect to work. After all, the future and success of manufacturing – as with any sector – relies on the ability of its workforce to move the industry ahead.

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