Manufacturing 4.0: A Rising Tide to Float All Boats

MFG 4.0gWe’ve heard the horror stories. Manufacturing 4.0 will be a nightmare. It will destroy all that’s good about American industry (if not our country itself and our vibrant , working class); all in the name of progress.  And it will be an industrialized version of some creepy Orwellian vision in which workers are rendered unneeded by an army of heartless and soulless (but not mindless) robots, and where – fueled by increased production and slashed costs – both unemployment and corporate profits rocket skyward.

But I’m not buying those tales of worker doom and despair, any of them. And not by a long shot.  Because more than fear, hyperbole and wild conjecture, I believe in something far more compelling and something with a much more compelling track record for predicting future behavior. I believe, as much as anything else, in the tried-and-true wisdom of the marketplace.

MFG 4.0I believe (and have been shown again and again) that all doomsday predictions and worst-case scenarios will ultimately be declawed, defanged and downright disemboweled by a phenomenon only slightly less certain than those two old standbys, death and taxes: an irrepressible little market force called supply-and-demand.

Yes, in Manufacturing 4.0 workers will be challenged as never before as technology continues to encroach on what, for a full century, has always been their sacred turf.  And, yes, many of them will fall victim to our sector’s ever-growing reliance on cutting edge technology.

But those industrial workers who do fall victim to what is proving to be a tidal wave of automation will all have at least one thing in common. They will all go down firmly believing in the clearly defined boundaries of their own skills and will spend the rest of their days utterly convinced they know everything they need to know to qualify for a good-paying job in the manufacturing sector.

MFG 4.0aFor years, one of my mantras has been that our workers need to wake up to (and fully embrace) a concept that many of our most prudent and progressive educators have long espoused.  It’s a wonderful concept called “lifelong learning,” and it is the process by which students no longer view their own body of knowledge as a static entity, but instead spend their lives in the constant pursuit of ways to build on it.

Similarly, I’ve long embraced a second mantra: one that holds that seismic shifts in any marketplace create untold occasions for both individual growth and new business opportunities.  Because (once again, as it’s been proven more often than I care to count) for all the doors that technology promises to slam shut on workers’ faces, it will kick open that many more.

MFG 4.0cThis is where the whole supply-and-demand thing comes in. Because as industrial jobs become scarcer and more reliant on specific knowledge and skill sets, the wisdom of the marketplace will demand that more and more employees upgrade and modernize their skills.   And in the process, much like rising tides and floating boats, our entire sector will reap the benefits.  American manufacturing will get significantly stronger.  It will become more nimble.  And, above all, it will become better qualified to stay ahead of the constantly changing demands of today’s global marketplace.

But before any of that can happen, our sector’s workers need to take a good hard look in the mirror and embrace one simple but unflinching truth; they need to start getting retrained, and the sooner the better.  And they need to understand too that, while there will be new jobs opening in manufacturing and heavy industry, relatively few of them will be on the shop floor.

The nature of our business is constantly changing, along with the technology driving it.  As a result, the physical making of products (a responsibility being assumed with greater frequency by sophisticated machines) will require less in the way of human capital.  But at the same time, disciplines like product design & development, sales, research, marketing, finance, logistics and client support, service and training will not only grow in importance, they will represent tremendous opportunities for anyone willing to be trained to do them.

MFG 4.0bWhat’s more, as client lists and target markets diversify and become more international in nature, being bi-lingual, which was likely always considered a quaint talent by certain employers, will suddenly become a marketable job skill.

The jobs, in other words will be there.  They just won’t look and feel the way they do today.

In their book, Reskilling America: Learning to Labor in the 21st Century, Katherine S. Newman and Hella Winston contend the “college for everyone” myth is finally being exposed for the fraud it is, and that labor – skilled labor – represents one of the great growth areas in today’s (and tomorrow’s) job market.

MFG 4.0fIt’s not that the loss of jobs in Manufacturing 4.0 should scare today’s labors and factory workers. After all, in a world driven by automation, speed-to-market, manufacturing-on-demand and ultra-lean production there will always be a need for skilled, qualified workers.

MFG 4.0eNo, what should scare them is that little voice inside their head telling them they already know everything they need.

Note:  A version of this blog post originally appeared in June/July 2016 edition of Manufacturing Today magazine.

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