Extrapolating from the results of NTT DATA’s recent research report, Innovation Index: Shifting from Disruption to Growth, Kim Curley, NTT DATA’s Digital Evolution Leader and Vice President of People & Organization, shares her insights about the future of the manufacturing workforce in the first of our Manufacturing in 2030: Crystal Ball series.
Picture this: the year is 2030. Across the U.S., the manufacturing workforce has evolved into a symphony of humans and machines working in harmony. This dramatic transformation has made the workforce a technology-enabled powerhouse. Artificial intelligence, robotics, and virtual reality lead the charge, transforming the factory floor into a buzzing and orchestrated hub of activity.
Workers use advanced technologies to perform their tasks more efficiently and safely, collaborating seamlessly with their robotic counterparts. The shop floor thrums with the smooth whirr of precise machinery and the hum of advanced systems. Augmented reality displays guide workers through complex tasks. And to make this possible, the workforce has become a melting pot of diverse talents and skills that is continuously learning and developing
It is a rosy view of the future, but realistic based on current data and trends that illuminate a path to this future state.
Changing Skillsets for 2030
The 2030 manufacturing workforce will be doing things quite differently than they do today. Four in 10 manufacturers have already begun leveraging augmented or virtual reality devices, and that will only increase. That usage will expand to support workforce instruction and training. One example of this could be teaching workers to switch over a production line. Providing that training in a virtual reality environment would mean the company doesn’t need to shut down real-world production.
As the usage of advanced technologies rapidly expands, the skillsets of the manufacturing workforce must expand, too. In addition to physical technical skills, workers will need to strengthen their understanding of technologies as well as problem solving, critical thinking and leadership skills. To build that workforce over time, you must start by expanding the skillsets of managers and leaders now. Starting today is critical to being successful in 2030, indeed, 39% of manufacturers report that they have already increased their investment in leadership development.
A More Resilient Enterprise
The evolved workforce will enable significant benefits. The big one is resilience. An augmented workforce better enables the company to respond to changes in the marketplace. With such a workforce, companies can train faster, reset the lines, and change worker skillsets more rapidly. Paving the way for this evolution, upskilling and reskilling programs for new and/or existing workers are underway today at 54% of manufacturers. More broadly, making your workforce future-ready entails steps such as improving safety, productivity and talent; incentivizing workforce agility; teaching new leadership skills; engaging the workforce; and maintaining a future-focused mindset. We’ll look at each in turn.
Improving Safety, Productivity, and Talent
The NTT DATA 2023 Innovation Index survey showed that businesses are increasingly addressing potential disruptions in strategic plans because these events present opportunities for those businesses that can act with resilience and speed.
So, it is not surprising that manufacturers are placing increased importance on their workforce and the workforce’s ability to adapt and move quickly. The more connected and engaged the workforce is, the better it can shift and flex when the unexpected happens.
Three vital areas come immediately to mind when considering how these coming changes address the problems facing today’s manufacturing industry. The first is safety. As noted earlier, one of the best commercial applications of virtual technologies is training. Training workers to complete physically demanding or potentially hazardous tasks in a completely safe environment — without the cost of physically constructing such simulated environments — is a game changer. Fully 77% of manufacturers report plans to use these technologies within the next two years. That’s well ahead of the cross-industry average of 64%. Using these tools for ongoing training programs helps ensure that workers know exactly what they need to do and how to do it. And it does that while protecting their safety and the safety of the products they manufacture.
A second area of lift is in productivity — specifically, decreasing production errors and downtime. The proliferation of sensors enabled by 5G, advanced computing and machine learning technologies gives us better insights than ever before. These insights enable us to better plan and use scarce resources, another game changer.
The third area is talent. Emerging technologies in the factory call for a new-collar workforce that understands both manufacturing and Manufacturing 4.0. As the industry increases its use of and innovation with advanced technologies, more visionaries will be attracted to manufacturing. At the same time, advocacy initiatives like the Manufacturing Institute’s Creators Wanted program help spread information about this shift in manufacturing work so the next generation of young talent is aware of these opportunities to work with technology. This shift in the reputation of the industry overall can help bring the best and the brightest talent into manufacturing. The workforce will transform from the outside in as it changes from the inside as well.
Incentivizing Workforce Agility
For people and technology to align more closely, it will be important that the workforce sees the benefits of change. Many additional technologies come into play with a technology-enabled workforce. Remote collaboration tools and digital twins can allow manufacturers to assess and optimize processes virtually. These tools may require their users to have specific skills, such as a familiarity with the way data is used to create digital twins, to realize their full value. An agile and augmented workforce will be prepared with those skills or will be readily able to develop them.
The heightened importance of the workforce will call for momentous changes. Historically, manufacturing has considered the human as a component of the manufacturing line. The concept of human capital itself came from the manufacturing industry. Shifting our thinking changes how we develop people and give them desirable career progressions. It also impacts how we pay and incentivize people.
Adopting practices for compensation, rewards, and training from other industries to attract and keep the best and brightest can be beneficial. In high tech, for example, companies such as Google, Apple, and Facebook prioritize employee development and learning opportunities. They offer training programs, mentorships, and career advancement pathways. Some 84% of manufacturers have at least piloted investments in training for employees in areas such as factoring customer behavior into decision-making. To date, though, just three in 10 manufacturers report adjusting total rewards packages to increase their competitiveness when searching for new talent or retaining existing workers.
New Leadership Skills
The path to a future-ready workforce will include overcoming hurdles. One of the biggest is the need for a radically new style of leadership. Leaders in-house today often have massive institutional knowledge and a long history of viewing the workforce in a particular way. Having such leadership has often led to success. But going forward, that will need to change. That is a challenge. You have to teach the most senior leaders to see the workforce — both its potential and its needs—differently. But even incremental change comes slowly. Presently, for example, only 13% of manufacturers report being highly effective at delivering on worker-centric policies such as flexible working options and schedules.
Certainly, you cannot change a whole company’s culture unless you’re working from the top down as well as the bottom up. But once you do, you are positioned to develop and sustain a culture of innovation, experimentation, and resilience.
Engaging the Workforce
The workforce can and should be an active part of its own evolution. First, engage with your workforce – truly engage. Understand who your people are and what is important to them. Find ways to connect them to your company’s purpose and the impact you want to have on the world around you. The stronger those connections are, the more powerful a force your workforce can be in driving the transformation you’ll need over the coming years.
Second, expose more of the workforce to technologies and how these tools can help them and the business. Manufacturers are slightly behind the cross-industry average at the use of updated tools and technologies, with only 29% considering it important to employee satisfaction and engagement. Our Innovation Index shows that the best ideas to advance the business most often come from the individuals who already know the most — your workforce.
A Future-Focused Mindset
Mindset is everything. Without a growth mindset at every level of your organization, you will struggle to accomplish a transformation that will drive success between now and 2030. This mindset must be pervasive, encompassing everything from policies to hiring practices, investment decisions and the employee value proposition you put into the marketplace. When you embrace a mindset that says we are going to try new things and grow, and your workforce embodies it every day, you will create a resilient organization that is comfortable pushing boundaries to create the future.
About the author
Kim Curley is Digital Evolution Leader and Vice President of People & Organization at NTT DATA.