The skills gap in manufacturing has been growing larger every year and the impact of the global pandemic has escalated the divide. Most of the manufacturing jobs that were vacated during the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak are still available, largely because the right people with specific qualifications are not applying for the work. According to Deloitte, it is estimated that 2.1 million manufacturing jobs will be unfilled by the year 2030 due to the skills gap. The cause for this disruption stems from many factors such as the natural progression of Baby Boomer and Generation X employees aging toward retirement and a lack of interest from younger generations to work in the manufacturing industry. No matter the cause, manufacturers currently face unprecedented labor shortages and are struggling to find the right talent to perform skilled roles.
The engineering skills gap within manufacturing creates a duplicitous problem, contrary to the idea that digitalized processes and robotics replace the need for humans. Automated systems help manufacturers streamline production with processes that promote efficiency, quality, and reliability, but engineers and employees with technical skills are still required to install, monitor, maintain, operate, and service the control systems. In addition to technical roles that remain unfilled on the production floor, information technology and cybersecurity experts are needed to protect data and operational technology systems as more digitalization occurs within the company. The fourth industrial revolution has been underway for some time now, but the current labor shortages and skills gaps have manufacturers scrambling to meet the high demand for technical employees required to fill such roles.
How, then, do manufacturers manage the skills gap? Longer term solutions involve implementing more STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) in primary, elementary, and secondary schools. These programs ingrain technical skills in young people that spark interest in labor and trade jobs while also shifting the paradigm that once discouraged Millennials and Generation Z from landing on such career paths. Upskilling and training programs for current workers can also be an effective way to fill gaps for skilled roles, however this requires time and money, both of which can be in short supply when addressing labor issues. Pressure to keep production running may lead some manufacturers to rely on less qualified internal resources to fill a skilled role without investing in the proper training. This could result in someone applying principals that are not the best practice for the platform or system, which can have a big impact on operations including shutting down lines or limiting system performance.
Because there is no singular or overnight solution to filling the skills gap and reducing the impact it has on operations, manufacturers can seek the help of a systems integrator to alleviate some of the pressure. EN Automation has extensive experience and the resources required to facilitate customized solutions that address manufacturing pain points. For example, EN helped a manufacturing customer optimize their operations after losing both of their controls engineers when they pursued job opportunities that became available during the pandemic. The engineers who resigned were the only people on staff with programming insight and experience with the control system and platform that is critical to the customer’s manufacturing process. The machinery could be operated, but not to the capacity for which it was designed which left the plant operating under less-than-optimal conditions. There was an urgency to the situation fueled by pressure from the plant manager to avoid downtime while addressing alarm issues and machine faults that were disrupting daily operations.
EN was able to offer the customer immediate support when they could not quickly fill the engineering jobs because of the skills gap in available applicants. After establishing a remote support protocol, EN worked with the customer to identify the system specifics and reported limitations in the daily operations. Once a plant assessment confirmed the system hardware and software were right for the process, EN applied platform expertise to make modifications to the system. Through the application of best practices for the platform, automation engineers reviewed and eliminated programming errors and addressed additional system limitations that had been inhibiting operations. The solutions applied resulted in maximized throughput and boosted customer confidence in their control system and facility operations, despite the loss of their in-house experts.
Manufacturers can invest in upskilling, training, recruitment, and STEM education to promote technical skills in future workers, but also need support to manage the disparity right now. Collaborating with an experienced systems integrator can provide immediate relief and an opportunity to maximize production and optimize operations. Solutions range from providing imbedded resources to fill vacant engineering roles to developing an automation roadmap for phased modernization that boosts efficiency to take operations to the next level. Investing in automation and industrial control systems is a good idea at any time because it promotes better processes and production metrics, but can be especially helpful in bridging the skills gaps that exist in the current climate.
EN Automation is a division of EN Engineering, a full-service firm offering a comprehensive array of engineering, consulting and environmental services for pipeline, utilities, and industrial companies. We can meet the requirements of any project with flexible, scalable resources and continued on-site and remote support services through a network of experts located in our regional offices across the nation. As a CSIA-certified systems integrator and partner with industry-leading providers, EN meets rigorous standards while providing the complete spectrum of automation solutions to the power, food and beverage, manufacturing, oil and gas, rail transportation, and water and wastewater industries.