Your shop floor has gotten smarter. Time for your people to do the same.

We all know that manufacturing jobs are disappearing. But even for seasoned industry people, the pace of job evaporation is pretty breathtaking. We’ve lost 5,000,000 factory jobs since 2000.

Some point to the unintended consequences of poor trade deals, or cheaper labor overseas, as reasons for this phenomenon. But those arguments don’t explain what’s happening. In fact, the U.S. saw an increase in manufacturing jobs in the aftermath of passing the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Something else is the primary driver of this change.

You see, those jobs aren’t all disappearing. Nor have massive numbers of jobs been moved to foreign shores. In fact, many of those 5,000,000 jobs have stayed here. But people aren’t performing them anymore. They belong to robots.

Automation has had a profound impact on your overall operations but, more importantly, on your workforce. And, despite current political rhetoric, there’s no turning back. Because of its impact on productivity, automation will continue to spread across plant floors in an increasingly wide array of industries, especially here in the U.S. where (and some might say this is highly ironic) automation is one key to a viable manufacturing sector.

So, what can you be doing to embrace this ongoing transformation and prepare your organization to stay competitive, but also minimize the negative impacts that automation could have on your workers?

One area to consider is the new skills your workforce will need and how to help them gain those skills.

Technical skills rule

Fundamentally, the current skills of the typical manufacturing worker have been honed for a shop floor that depends on human activity. Those skills tend to be non-technical. To bring your people into alignment with the needs of a more automated environment, more technically demanding skills – knowledge of math, computers and robotics, for example – will be the order of the day.

Here’s a nice summary I found in an article, showing the contrast between “old” and “new” skills:

Old World New World
Learning one or two specific technical roles Mechanical reasoning, logic trouble shooting, and spatial visualization
Physical strength and flexibility Personal flexibility, communication, and cooperation
Ability to follow fixed, unchanging procedures Initiative, persistence, and independence
General attention to production and safety procedures Attention to detail, self-control, and dependability
Following orders Making independent decisions
Operating, maintaining, designing mechanical machinery Operating computers or computerized machinery and using computers for a wide range of critical functions

As you can see, these are very different skill sets. Some of your current workers might have some of them, but even that rosy scenario would still compel you to undertake training, to ensure that as many as possible are capable of contributing to the success of your new, more automated environment.

What about younger workers? Being digital natives, they’re certainly more comfortable with technology. But you can’t assume that being well acquainted with a smartphone or tablet will make someone under 30 inherently more prepared to use the technology they’ll find in your workplace.

Bottom line: whether you’re talking about “re-skilling” your existing workforce or incorporating new, younger workers, some form of training will be useful in creating a team that delivers high productivity in a heavily automated shop.

Will you need to provide the required training? Not necessarily, although it might make sense if your operation is large enough to make in-house training cost-effective. On the other hand, finding appropriate training options externally could be challenging. We’re talking about relatively new skills, after all.

To start, you can contact local vocational schools or community colleges that are known for a focus on training for trades. See if they already have programs that align with your training needs. If they don’t, take the opportunity to partner with them and create a training program tailored to your needs.

If you’re in an area that depends on manufacturing to support the local economy, engage with your elected officials to advocate for new skills training. They’ll have a vested interest in making sure your workers (also known as their constituents and taxpayers) have skills that will not only keep existing employers in place, but attract new ones as well.

With every passing day, automation plays a more central role in a successful manufacturing business. Make sure you’ll have a workforce that’s capable of leveraging this ongoing transformation. Training is the key.