Challenging Labor Shortages: Options to Mitigate

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Challenging Labor Shortages: Options to Mitigate

In today’s age, we are vastly approaching a crisis. The manufacturing and industrial world is challenged with a limited number of employees wanting to work in the industry. Furthermore, Baby Boomers, the main knowledge base in factory operations, are retiring. These experienced people are so seasoned in their ways that they often have not taken the time to document exactly what they accomplish, and most importantly what their tricks of the trade are, day in and day out. Thus, institutional knowledge retires with the Boomers and is not passed to the next generation.

As indicated above, perhaps the biggest source of the crisis streams from the Boomer retirement. Baby Boomers make up about 70 million Americans, that’s 21% of the US population. The last of them will make their workforce exit by the year 2031 with an average of over 100,000 retiring each year. Immediately after them is Gen X at 55 million people then Millennials at 62 million. Neither one of these groups come close to the 70 million original Baby Boomers. Hence, there are simply not enough people to fill their soon to be vacant roles.
Another challenge is Digital Transformation. These improvements are greatly beneficial when it comes to Return on Investment (ROI) and analytics. The issue is the manning and service of the system behind the programs has created a new class of worker that requires a commitment and understanding of technology while also being able to operate the equipment in production. This is vastly different from the 19th and 20th centuries when workers needed only minimal skillsets and did not require training nor experience before beginning their career. Their job had a consistent repetition to the work that didn’t require a lot of mental gymnastics. Meanwhile, while automation can minimize the need for mental complexity in the manufacturing process, the operation of the factory now requires a “grey collar” (i.e. not blue nor white collar) role to make the systems run. Many companies are finding it challenging to find the right people with a technical education, in the latest equipment and software development so that they can support and maintain the technology. Compounding the problem, after mastering the tasks and training, a portion of these people find themselves interested in a new line of work and move on, leaving the manufacturer to start over with a new person.
What’s a manufacturer to do? As technology and automation is an obvious answer to augment a dwindling number of available laborers, someone will need to “take care of the equipment” and ensure the technology runs optimally. In order to address this issue many progressive manufacturers are turning to an external partner to augment the support of their systems and be a resource to turn to when the problems become too complex or critical or if they are left short staffed due to departures. Another solution is to begin to capture, in an electronic format, the knowledge that is in the minds of the soon to retire individuals before they walk out the door for the last time. A good practice is to create small courses based on critical operational knowledge and then organize them in a Learner Management System (LMS) for access in the future and on demand. Coupling education with access to subject matter experts when they need help is a path toward independence from labor shortages.
This problem isn’t going away. At the rate we are going, the metal industry, as an example, expects a 400,000 worker shortage by 2024. That’s simply one of the many manufacturing and industrial facilities that will need to address the reality of the issue. Furthermore, we have already and continue to experience baby formula shortages, paper, and various prescription drugs such as Adderall, Albuterol Sulfate Inhalational Solutions, and Amoxicillin. The next predicted trouble area is butter. Thus, it is imperative that we dose a balance of education, skill augmentation, and new technology as ways to mitigate the labor issues.
The future is not bleak, rather it is opening a door for a potentially new way to look at the manufacturing world. As our technology soars, we are further exploring new possibilities that will take us to great lengths. The exciting opportunity is that we are heading to a new age that we can only begin to imagine.

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