Slater Mill, built in 1793 in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, is considered the starting point of America’s Industrial Revolution. When Slater substituted water power for human labor, manufacturing output, distribution and profits improved — and the modern manufacturing business model was ignited.
This business model still required human labor, but not in the same way as before. During this revolution, American manufacturers capitalized on recent discoveries, using new materials and energy sources to support improvements in farming, textiles, goods manufacture and everyday activities. This allowed farmers to grow more, tradesmen to produce more, and both groups to sell more. It also changed the nature of work, the routines of householders and businesspeople — and society in general.
Those centuries were marked by a sensibility that continues to guide manufacturing even now. Manufacturing has unfailingly put new ideas to work, from those early water-driven spindles to the nanoparticles used in “intrinsic healing” coatings today. Scientists, artists and backyard inventors continue to play a starring role in manufacturing innovation. At the shop-floor level, manufacturing employees are often playing an analogous role, identifying process innovations.
Yet nostalgia for “old-time manufacturing” still colors the thinking of many Americans, who pine for the days when a person with little education but a lot of strength of character could hold down a good job with a Michigan automaker, an Ohio parts-maker, an Alabama shipbuilder or a California avionics supplier. America’s middle class was literally forged in the manufacturing sector. But as times have changed, manufacturing has changed with them, so that not only new skills — but also new combinations of skills— are required of a manufacturing employee. Today’s requisite manufacturing skills, like its evolving job positions, are still being defined, and they will continue to change over the next several decades. Many of those new jobs will require the following:
- Sense-making (for dealing with complex situations)
- Novel and adaptive thinking (for developing innovative ideas and problem-solving)
- Social intelligence (to understand how best to connect and work with people)
- Trans-disciplinary facility (to work across multiple disciplines)
- New-media literacy (to know how to use many forms of media to find, analyze and use information)
- Computational thinking (for deploying a systems approach to an enterprise or sector)
- Cognitive load management (to manage information overload)
- Design mindset (to create new forms that meet function)
- Cross-cultural competency (to ensure global fluency)
- Virtual collaboration (to be able to partner with others not seen in the flesh)
- Technical skills of many different kinds.
As the new skill combinations suggest, manufacturing employees will need to be adept at maneuvering within a high-tech, information-loaded, fast-paced, multidimensional, multinational framework whose inputs may be sourced from anywhere in the world. These inputs include personnel. If there are gaps in critical areas and functions, manufacturers can be expected to source employees who have the right skills from wherever they are located, regardless of country or region.
Advanced manufacturing is fast becoming the dominant type of manufacturing in the United States, driven by the necessities of economics and national security. The majority of American manufacturing employees will soon be working in its fluid, computational, adaptive, digital world. New approaches to workforce development must therefore be initiated, implemented and institutionalized so that America can build a pipeline of advanced manufacturing talent to fuel its economic growth.
There’s no dearth of organizations, programs and initiatives that intend to recreate America’s manufacturing workforce. So, what could possibly be missing in the effort to close the U.S. skills gap? Why do manufacturers have a continuing problem finding skilled manufacturing employees?
The main problem is that along with disruptive technologies comes disruption in skill requirements. New requirements take some time to fully understand and to teach — once they are even identified. Because the manufacturing sector has changed so dramatically from the Baby Boom generation to the Millennial generation, the long lag that has taken place in updating formal education and training has had a considerable, detrimental effect on the manufacturing competitiveness of many U.S. companies. And unlike most large companies, small businesses don’t have corporate trainers, universities or chief learning officers to negotiate changing skill requirements.
A second — but no less critical — problem is that innovation, exporting, supply-chain management and sustainability used to be for “the big guys.” These issues now shape the environment in which supply chain manufacturers conduct their business, as well. Cost-reduction issues have already been pushed down to them, so small companies must move quickly to access the technology, brainpower, capital financing and flexible business-process approaches that, for a long time, were not necessarily critical to their ongoing success. To stay on top in today’s high-stakes business environment, manufacturers have begun using technology to monitor inputs, outputs, throughputs and revenue. Everything from design and production through marketing and distribution is run or monitored by advanced software applications that can help evaluate the costs and value of business processes.
It is critical for manufacturers to invest in these technologies, for without them they will not be able to compete either domestically or globally. And this includes technologies for aligning business goals with talent management. So often a company’s workforce skills are considered afterall other business decisions have been made. This is an enormous strategic mistake.
Processes must be standardized for the management and alignment of all systems within operations. This includes standard processes for talent management and the use of the software that facilitates process alignment and analytic capability. Technology allows for simplicity and transparency in talent management, and manufacturers that choose not to use software programs to align business goals with talent management policies and practices are neglecting oversight of a primary source of their revenue and expenses. These software programs are proliferating as open source software and technology infrastructure standards like Tin Can are aligned. And the IT professionals who create these programs can easily be hired to provide custom solutions at reasonable cost.
As a business decision, ignoring the ongoing transformation of talent management options will be a decisive factor for success or failure. The starting gun has been fired.
Stacey Jarrett Wagner is a principal with The JarrettWagner Group, LLC. JWG specializes in imaginative idea development and implementation for workforce issues such as business/workforce analytics, workforce capacity, alignment of workforce and economic development strategies, post-secondary education transitions and training, research and benchmarking for talent management, non-traditional worker strategies, workforce policy assessment and development, and partnering with philanthropic institutions.
A version of this column was initially published in “ReMaking America,” by the Alliance for American Manufacturing.