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Isaac Maw


Three Great Ways to Retrain Your Workers for the Automated Future

How can labor shortages be addressed without creating skills gaps?

Published: Monday, October 17, 2022 - 11:02

Automation provides opportunities for new, more efficient workflows and better resource use in manufacturing. Despite a long history of fears concerning job losses brought on by automation, these anxieties aren’t typically reflected in reality.

To learn more about the best ways to upskill workers while adopting automation, engineering.com spoke to Samuel Bouchard, CEO of Robotiq, which makes end effectors and accessories for Universal Robots and specializes in the deployment of collaborative robots.

While it’s tempting for laypeople to succumb to the idea of robots “taking jobs” from their human counterparts, Bouchard believes this isn’t a prevailing belief in industry. “The reason is that everybody is super busy and looking for more people,” says Bouchard.

However, in Robotiq’s experience, workers may still have some uncertainty about how robots will affect their jobs. “Workers know that they will be needed at other places in the factory, but they don't know really what that means until they get the first project going. And then it totally changes.”

According to Bouchard, once workers see robots in action, they begin to appreciate the role they play in taking on repetitive, less interesting tasks.

“At that point in time, two things typically happen,” says Bouchard. “The first thing is that the robot will receive a nickname from the workers. And second, the workers will start looking for other places where they could deploy robots.

“Nobody would go in front of an excavator doing road work and say, ‘Hey, let’s go back to pick and shovel,’” continues Bouchard. “But with a robot, because it looks like a human, we have a different perspective. In the end, it’s really the same thing: It’s just a new generation of tools.”

In factory automation, the technology may reduce head count, especially at the specific task where it’s deployed. But overall, there is a net increase in value, not only for ownership but also for the workers themselves, who gain new skills while working for better pay in more interesting, engaging jobs.

Considering these factors, automation is an attractive investment for manufacturers in 2022, especially as they face labor-shortage challenges in the aftermath of the pandemic. At the same time, retaining quality talent at all levels of an organization is a growing challenge for leadership. According to a 2021 Gartner poll on the Great Resignation, 60 percent of executive leaders described themselves as significantly concerned about employee turnover. What’s more, the report found that the total number of skills required for a single job is increasing by 6 percent annually. Building critical skills and competencies is a top priority for 59 percent of HR leaders in 2022, and 40 percent say that they can’t build skill-development solutions fast enough to meet evolving needs. As automation continues to grow across the manufacturing landscape and helps drive efficiency and ease labor needs, the need for upskilling and retaining workers grows, too.

What is upskilling?

Like many business buzzwords, upskilling is a relatively new term for something old: teaching and learning additional skills. Although training has always been a tool in the workplace, it has become critical in today’s industrial landscape. With new digital technologies rapidly expanding almost every business and creating larger-scale changes to the job market as a whole, business leaders are finding it difficult to hire workers with job-ready skills. This pace of change often creates skills gaps, where existing workers are left without the new skills needed to perform evolving tasks. In this world, upskilling is no longer a nice-to-have—it’s essential for maintaining an effective workforce.

There are several approaches that manufacturers can take to upskill their workforce so workers can successfully meet the demands of high-tech manufacturing plants.

Three ways to upskill workers for automation

1. Create communication channels to learn from workers

Ultimately, workers know intimately what tasks and operations on the production line are the most repetitive and require automation. By creating open communication channels from leadership to workers at all levels, leaders can gain valuable insights.

According to Bouchard, some companies build the value of communication into the culture by walking the production floor and talking to people who work there. “It’s more this culture than a specific process that can make a big difference,” he says.

The process of robotic automation deployment requires change management. “Be proactive with communication—because when there is a void in communication, that void can be filled with whatever people are concerned with,” says Bouchard.

Communication channels are key to upskilling because in addition to gathering valuable information for more successful automation projects, they can help leadership identify employees who are engaged, knowledgeable, and interested in making improvements. These workers are the best candidates for upskilling and training.

2. Create individualized training plans

Once you have identified the best candidates for upskilling, the next step is to retain and engage those employees. Employee ownership of upskilling empowers them to move into roles they are interested in. In addition, employees undergoing a long series of disjointed training programs may feel frustrated. But when the roadmap is communicated, employees can identify their own skills gaps and complete the right training for specific roles.

By creating a personalized training plan with each candidate, leaders not only address the uncertainty around new automation and job changes but also help workers fully understand the upskilling journey they’re taking on.

“If you have workers who are really good machinists, really good welders, really good at doing assembly—and they’re really eager to learn a new technology, a new tool—that’s great,” says Bouchard. “Because to have a successful project, you need to combine process expertise and technology expertise. If you have people who already have process expertise and are willing to learn, they can really bring a lot of value to your business.”

One option for these training plans could include programs offered by robot vendors and OEMs. These programs typically involve sending selected employees to multiple full-day sessions at a training center, where they take on classroom and hands-on learning, including key skills such as robot programming, calibration, and safety. While these programs can be costly, in many cases they are offered as part of the robot sale as a deal-sweetener.

3. Start small

Because upskilling is the process of continually developing worker skills to stay in line with business and technology changes, one of the best ways to set up for success is to start small. By automating one task, workers can gain the knowledge and skills they need to help enable future automation projects. If the business changes too quickly, it can create bigger skills gaps and require more investment in upskilling.

According to Bouchard, this is the best way to address the difficulty of finding qualified workers, as well as the challenge of setting up successful automation. “The best strategy solves both problems at the same time,” he says. “So, it is a strategy that can automate the manual task to solve the hiring challenge, but also a strategy that you can actually [use to] execute and build your automation skills.”

By selecting technologies that are easy to deploy and include learning tools that employees can use in upskilling, manufacturers can not only fill a role on the shop floor by automating a task but also continually build the skills that are needed to further develop the automation strategy.

First published Sept. 11. 2022, on engineering.com.


About The Author

Isaac Maw’s picture

Isaac Maw

Isaac Maw is associate editor of manufacturing at engineering.com. A graduate of the University of Toronto with a bachelor of arts degree in communication, he is a passionate writer and a skilled online researcher and marketer.