America’s manufacturing workforce crisis may be most acute in California, where 70,000 manufacturing jobs are unfilled. We caught up with Jim Watson, CEO of California’s Manufacturing Extension Partnership Center, who describes the embrace of technology and automation underway in response.

CompanyWeek: Let’s start with the obvious question: has COVID-related remote employment exacerbated an already difficult environment for manufacturers?

Jim Watson: Yes, but other challenges had an impact on the environment as well. In manufacturing, the physical work makes it difficult to shift production to remote work. As a result, COVID-related employee absenteeism forced companies to work with minimal staff on the shop floor. This created uncertainty as to a company’s ability to build and ship orders on time. The loss of existing workers, even for a short time, compounded a workforce shortage that was a growing problem prior to the pandemic. In August, the existing workforce shortages combined with the fallout from the pandemic has resulted in almost 70,000 open manufacturing job postings in California, which has definitely limited the speed of recovery and growth in manufacturing. As a testament to the serious nature of the workforce shortage, in a recent CMTC California Manufacturing Survey, finding skilled workers was reported to be the top ongoing post-pandemic concern.

CW: Are more manufacturers turning to automation due to the workforce shortage?

JW: There is no question that manufacturers are using technology to transform their operations. However, the frequency and rate of adopting automation needs to increase to improve productivity and the ability to compete in the global economy. As a baseline, in CMTC’s California Manufacturing Survey, nearly one-half of the surveyed companies (46 percent) had not automated their manufacturing processes. However, 61 percent are planning to automate within the next few years. Manufacturers are beginning to see the benefits of automation, as 32 percent felt advanced manufacturing technology was very or extremely valuable and would provide a competitive advantage contributing to their long-term success.

This question is tied to the previous workforce question as technology adoption and finding and/or keeping skilled workers are closely linked. Both are critical elements as manufacturers begin integrating technology into their operations.

CW: What workforce changes do you anticipate will emerge from the pandemic?

JW: From February 2020 through July 2021, California manufacturing is down 74,000 jobs. As manufacturers are rehiring and technology is becoming more prevalent in small- and medium-sized manufacturers, the need for a workforce with a strong science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) educational background will continue to escalate. For the existing workforce, manufacturers will need to prepare their workers to embrace technology and not be afraid of the changes it will bring.

Pandemic, retirements, and turnover has depleted skilled workers in manufacturing. Two approaches are being used to fill the gap: 1) workforce apprenticeship programs, with students getting on the job training while still taking courses, and 2) up skilling existing workers. To find STEM educated workers, manufacturers will need to actively engage with community colleges and universities who have graduates ready to work. For existing workers, manufacturers will need to ramp up internal training. Both training approaches will be necessary for manufacturers to consistently find and match the right person, with the right skills, to the right job.

CW: Pandemic aside, manufacturers are adapting to new, more automated, technology-informed operations. Within CMTC’s customer network, what are the technology needs and expected outcomes of technology adoption by manufacturers?

JW: Manufacturers are adopting new technologies driven by the need to be competitive. To solve this critical need, manufacturers are turning to a few key technologies. In our survey, manufacturers selected robotics, additive, and smart manufacturing as the top three technologies of choice. They were selected because:

  • Robotics will increase manufacturing efficiencies and productivity, setting the stage for growth.
  • Additive will reduce the cost and increase the speed to market for new products.
  • Smart manufacturing will provide real-time data to improve decision making, resulting in better quality, energy efficiencies, cost savings, enhanced business planning, and improved customer satisfaction.

Technology is enhancing the ability of U.S. manufacturers to compete with foreign suppliers.

As technology adoption increases global competitiveness, we should see a return of some manufactured products to the United States, which would lead to more high-paying manufacturing jobs.

Because 43 percent of clients surveyed responded that they were not sure of their technology needs, assistance will be required to determine which technologies will solve the unique challenges facing each manufacturer. Building a strategic approach for manufacturers to find affordable technology solutions, a skilled workforce to operate the technology, and capital to finance the integration of new equipment will be needed for tech-transfer to scale across the manufacturing community. The desire of manufacturers to seek assistance will determine the rate of the industry’s technology adoption in the future.

Contact Jim Watson at jwatson@cmtc.com.

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