Workforce paradox: Automation key to manufacturing job growth

By Bart Taylor | Oct 11, 2016

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Even as manufacturing's percent of U.S. employment lingers around 10 to 12 percent of total employment (and about 9 percent in Utah and Colorado), U.S. manufacturing is alive and well. American industrial output is at an all time high. We're simply making more, with less. From Vox.com:

Since 1987, US manufacturers have increased their output by 80 percent at the same time as they have reduced their workforce by about 17 percent. In other words, American factories are about twice as efficient today as they were three decades ago. So we're producing more and more stuff, even as we use fewer and fewer people to do it.

It's a testament to America's incredible R&D engine -- and entrepreneurial ecosystem that commercializes innovation and technology.

But in the new manufacturing economy, where we make more with fewer employees, we still struggle to develop the right workforce. Today's manufacturing employees are challenged to learn the skills that match our 21st century industrial makeup: technology-informed and in many cases, skill-sets we stopped teaching decades ago.

This was demonstrated again at last last month's third annual Apparel + Lifestyle Manufacturing Summit. New cut-and-sew centers are launching in Colorado to meet growing consumer demand for apparel, backpacks, shoes, and other sewn products. Utah's lifestyle industry boom is also fueling the development of more production businesses. But since we've not trained successive generations of pattern-makers, sewers, and finishers, there's a workforce shortage and no real manual today for workforce development. Who's an ideal candidate? What's an appropriate curriculum, and for what equipment?

Even as we find and train workers, one reality is that technology will change everything. As Utah and Colorado look for footing in new (but old) industry sectors like garment manufacturing, technology will shape anew how industry redevelops here. Will the region be home to thousands of new sewers? More likely, based on themes that emerged from the Summit, new production epicenters may look different, featuring more automized systems working in support of smaller, smarter teams -- prototyping hubs that enables brands to develop new products and manufacture to test in the field and with new consumers. Volume manufacturing may happen here, or elsewhere.

Consider how this model might proliferate across industries for communities that get it: diversified economies featuring dynamic craft food and beverage sectors that also sustain high-tech agriculture; advanced, agile middle-market manufacturers fabricating refined parts and assemblies; and lifestyle companies prototyping new products here in response to consumer's preference for all things local. Automated, small-batch manufacturing everywhere.

Here's a path ahead: Follow the lead of industry and higher-education advocating for fundamental change in how we train a next generation manufacturing workforce -- but expand the dialogue into industries not yet party to the conversation. Maker industries that stand to gain from technology and innovation. And feed and incubate early-stage manufacturing companies in these same industries.

We're destined to make things with fewer employees. But if we expand the breadth of what we make, across industries we've forgotten or ignored, we'll add jobs by breaking down barriers erected in the past couple decades.

With the hammer of American R&D.

Bart Taylor is publisher of CompanyWeek. Reach him at baylor@companyweek.com.