Skills Shortage: Educate or Automate?

The answer: Do both. Baby Boomers are taking their intellectual capital into retirement with them, and manufacturers are turning to technology and training to solve what is quickly becoming a dire skills shortage.

There was a disturbing headline in the Chicago Tribune recently. It read, “Caterpillar CEO: We Can’t Find Enough Skilled Workers.” The article went on to say that, despite the country’s high unemployment, the company can’t find people with the right skill sets to work in manufacturing operations.

According to Caterpillar CEO Doug Oberhelman, this stems from a lack of proper schooling. “The education system in the United States basically has failed them and we have to retrain every person we hire,” he told the newspaper.

The recently proposed American Jobs Act offers as a short-term plan for jobs creation the modernizing of at least 35,000 public schools, with renovations and Internet-ready classrooms. It’s nice that our kids will enjoy more-comfortable classrooms as they surf the Net, find new friends on Facebook, and one hopes, access information that will help them in their studies. But this won’t do anything to prepare them for the jobs we’ll need to fill in the future. I think the emphasis should be on education reform, not building renovations.

Manufacturers are already suffering as Baby Boomers retire en masse, leaving a gaping hole where properly trained operations management workers used to be. That hole needs to be filled, but it seems there is no one ready, willing, or able to step in and fill their shoes. So, what are the options? Some companies are considering replacing humans with robots.  Others are opting for other forms of automation that reduce the reliance on people. The Virginia-based Commonwealth Center for Advanced Manufacturing (CCAM) is one organization that is leaning toward the latter option.

Earlier this month I met CCAM president David Lohr, who told me that CCAM launched last year as a partnership between manufacturers and engineering schools. Seven manufacturing members participate in this collaborative research community designed to develop cutting-edge factory floor technology, including simulation, virtual manufacturing, and other forms of production automation to accelerate performance and time-to-market.

“We are about creating practical solutions to real-world problems that can be rapidly accelerated into the commercial space and deliver immediate payback to companies,” Lohr said.

For example, the group is researching new sensing technologies that can improve machine cycle time as well as monitor the movement of workers on the factory floor. “The goal,” according to Lohr, “is to develop new strategies and new enhancements to improve productivity and the ergonomics of the factory floor to drive cost down and productivity up.”

While CCAM’s focus is on technology, Lohr is quick to point out that the group’s research activity is underpinned by aggressive workforce development. CCAM is focusing on how to capture knowledge electronically and distribute it across the enterprise. the organization also is planning a large internship program that will continuously rotate engineering and science students through the CCAM facility. This will groom young engineers and scientists to work in the manufacturing factory of the future. But it does not get to the root of the problem, which is how to get kids interested in engineering as a career path early on and give them a proper education so that they can be productive members of a manufacturing team on day one. No re-training necessary.

The skills shortage we now face requires that we view education and automation technology as intertwined: Technology and proper training go hand-in-hand. If we turn our attention to this now, we can accomplish two things: Fix the unemployment problem for the long term and get American manufacturing back on track.

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  1. Nick Goebel
    Posted September 22, 2011 at 8:45 am | Permalink

    I agree with your answer that it is both. There’s no question that manufacturers need to continue to focus on automating tasks that can be done more productively. This helps sustain their competitive advantage and frees up resources for continued investment in growth. At the same time, a lot of focus has recently been placed on the retraining of dislocated workers to fill this skills gap. However, while this is important, I would also add that we shouldn’t take our eye off of employed workers and the need to make sure we are investing enough in on-the-job training to make sure their skill sets remain current as well. Technology will continue to evolve at an ever-increasing pace, and it is imperative that manufacturers, educators, and government organizations review and make relevant their training programs, curriculums and funding policies at the same pace to make sure both our employed and unemployed workforce are able to thrive in a complex manufacturing environment.

    Nick Goebel
    Rockwell Automation
    Training Services Business Manager

  2. Posted October 10, 2011 at 6:57 pm | Permalink

    The skills shortage was easily foreseen. The old system of mentoring young engineers has been scrapped because “the old guys” cost too much.
    When we gave away our manufacturing jobs and domestic markets, we also threw out the experience and internal know how. Education can not be “pushed” but it can easily be “pulled” by recreating the entry level positions and rebuilding experience ladders within the company.

  3. Michael Whitkanack
    Posted October 11, 2011 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

    For to long the misunderstanding that you must have a 4 year college degree to get a good paying job has been what high schools have told there students. We must first educated educators that this is not true and not everyone is college material. Until that happens they are nothing more than thieves and robbers because of the millions of dollars they are robbing there graduates of in there lifetime of working. Ronald Reagan said “Our vocational classrooms are as important if not more important than our core classes in school.” The workforce is made up of 20% professional, 65% skilled labor, and 15% unskilled. We must get this information to the schools and encourage them to change.

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