Automation: Are we ready for the new factory floor

There's a lot of talk about manufacturing. But is our work force prepared for the job?

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When I was in high school, there were basically two paths towards graduation. If you were college bound, as were most of my friends, you took algebra, geometry, calculus and the like. If you weren’t college bound, and if your parents didn’t own a small business or your Dad wasn’t in the trades, you did what you had to do to graduate before going to work at the Lordstown GM plant, Delphi or the steel mills.

I was thinking about this the other day after reading, Making It In America, a remarkable story on US manufacturing by Adam Davidson in The Atlantic.

I don’t think there’s anyone in the country who isn’t concerned about an unemployment rate that refuses to come down in any meaningful way. Political leaders on both sides of the aisles say they want to bring back the kinds of high-paying manufacturing jobs that used to employ my classmates who didn’t head off to college.

I’m not sure that world still exists. There have been recent stories in publications like the Wall Street Journal that suggest that one reason is that business has been reluctant to invest in human capital. As the Journal points out, manufacturers are far less likely to employ thousands of people at a location. Instead, companies are investing in automated equipment that they can depreciate now while running their factories and warehouses with far fewer people than ever.

Certainly, that’s part of the story. We celebrate achievements in productivity every month in Modern. Our December feature on a new Skechers facility is a case in point. Teeming with automation, it operates with 300 to 500 people, compared to more than 1,000 during peak periods in Skechers’ old set up. And it’s not just automation on the shop floor. Think of how far fewer personnel it takes to run an office thanks to computers, centralized printers and accounting software.

But I think something else has fundamentally changed on the factory floor. As Davidson learned from his time at Standard Motor Products, a maker of aftermarket auto parts, just having a high school diploma isn’t enough to secure a spot on today’s factory floor.

One of the employees he interviewed was a 27-year-old who runs the turning machine that produces the kind of precision parts that can still be profitably manufactured in the US. That young man has six semesters of community college and technical training under his belt. He didn’t just learn how to turn a lathe. He also studied geometry, trigonometry, calculus and computer programming – the kinds of courses I and my friends once took to prepare us for premed and engineering. Before he was trusted with a turning machine, he had five years of on the job experience and a month of specialized training, writes Davidson.

Davidson also interviewed a young gal working the line. She’s bright and by all accounts has the kind of work ethic admired by employers. She’s also a single mom with a high school education. She doesn’t have the finances or support system that would allow her to go to community college and care for her child.

What struck me is that the guy running the turning machine is relatively secure. He has skills and training that are in demand and in short supply on the factory floor. He’s not likely to be outsourced or replaced.

The young gal, for all her pluck and work ethic, is in the kind of job that is likely to be replaced by automation – if not now then in the future.

The difference between the two is 6 semesters of education. That doesn’t sound like a lot to people like me with a college degree. But for some, it’s still completely out of reach.

I’m all for bringing manufacturing back to this country. Writing about it pays my bills. But we also we have to find a way to invest in the type of technical education that will prepare workers for jobs on the new factory floor. 


About the Author

Bob Trebilcock
Bob Trebilcock, editorial director, has covered materials handling, technology, logistics and supply chain topics for nearly 30 years. In addition to Supply Chain Management Review, he is also Executive Editor of Modern Materials Handling. A graduate of Bowling Green State University, Trebilcock lives in Keene, NH. He can be reached at 603-357-0484.

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