Where Do Humans Fit in the Factory of the Future?

This post was written by Doug Aldrich, Ph.D., CFM, is a Denver-based industrial consultant. 

Much has been written and forecasted about the various impacts of technologies on humans: work, pleasure, productivity, and behaviors. The exponential growth of technical tools and their explosive applications to our lives have been nothing short of astounding. These have created an equally dramatic increase in new jobs with required skills. Organizations seek to fill the new positions with internal staffing and training, along with outsourcing, to maintain a strategic edge.

Humans-Robotics-Factory-of-the-Future

As we prepare for our futures, we ask, “How do humans fit into the equation of coexistence with ‘robots’?” (That question was reversed in past decades!) As technology grows in sophistication and complexity, it is vital to define new and improved skills, knowledge, and experiences (SKEs). Given unparalleled career doors opening, how do we view workforce development?

Before we discuss that, let’s touch on people supply. Most of us know about demographic “peaks and valleys” and the “less than two” replacement rates in Western countries. Shortages make it difficult to fill current positions, much less future, more demanding ones. This is crucial for mission-critical operations (MCOs) based on computers, automation, and networks. There simply are not enough people with the best SKEs to go around. These shortfalls cause problems with facilities, acquisition, retention, training/education expenses, and coaching/mentoring efforts.

Organizations should act upon the following:

  • Determine essential jobs and resource them, unimportant jobs and eliminate them, and bubble jobs (either inside or outside) and evaluate them. Not all positions are strategic or valued, so difficult decisions have to be made. The end result is to focus resources on the SKEs valued for long-term needs. In most operations, except for manufacturing, people costs are about 80 to 85 percent of total expense budgets, with facilities most of the remainder.
  • Totally change how they are supporting workforce development. It must be continuous, applied, seasoned, and subject to change. It is not about going to classes; it is about helping employees ensure education is relevant and useful. Assessing incoming SKEs is vital to understand gaps and putting together a “training” plan that makes sense to an individual and organization.
  • Work to integrate functions so there are no silos. Information technology, human resources, finances, and facilities, for example, all have limits and trade-offs. This requires a new degree of information flow and cross-fertilization of roles; collaborative teaming will not be merely touted. Soft skills in communications and team management, although qualitative, need rigorous nurturing.

With those essential steps tackled, there are strong opinions about what courses will prepare people to work in the new age, especially in MCOs. Most begin with a science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education at the A.A. or B.S. level. The nontraditional workforce suggests rethinking that and considering individual backgrounds. True training includes evaluation, usage, cultivation, and feedback for continuous improvement. New skills are added as the job moves forward; maybe anti-hacking training will become mandatory in the future.

An initial STEM hire will have some degree of depth. But here are my SKEs that need to be cultivated, if not initially present, for a sound future team member. Some are not surprises, while others may be:

  • problem definition and solving
  • imagination and innovation
  • adept change management
  • critical thinking and analysis
  • multidimensional teamwork
  • communications (all forms)
  • process acumen

Although each of these can be defined, notice they may have little to do with chemistry, local-area networks, automation controls, or network design. That is because those technical skills may be only initial job requirements. It is the growth in them and those above that make the difference. Your organization will prosper with people “loaded” with my suggested SKEs.

“The factory of the future will have only two employees, a man and a dog. The man is there to feed the dog. The dog is there to keep the man from touching the equipment,” said organizational consultant Warren Bennis. I used to be amused by this; now I am not so sure. We cannot abdicate the development of a competent and forward-performing workforce to a dog.

About the Author
Doug-AldrichDoug Aldrich, Ph.D., CFM, is a Denver-based consultant on complex facilities with 40 years of industry experience and three decades of college recruiting and involvement.

Connect with Doug:
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A version of this article originally was published at InTech magazine.

Click here to read Doug Aldrich’s article at InTech magazine.

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