Manufacturing has undergone a dramatic change in the last several decades. Automation plays a critical role in production, which means that many tasks that have been historically managed by skilled workers are now being done by machines.

Fortunately, workers have not been fully replaced by automated systems. Trained, educated employees are as important as they have ever been to the manufacturing industry, even as their roles change. But they should find new ways to add value, and continually develop expertise that cannot be relegated to machines.

Employers want to help their workers develop new skills, but many don’t know how to further train personnel without halting production or taking people away from their posts. If manufacturers cannot identify solutions, the skills gap that threatens the industry is likely to persist into the future.

Size of the problem

The National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) states that over the next decade, two million manufacturing jobs are expected to go unfilled. According to the Manufacturing Institute, 80 percent of manufacturers are reporting a significant shortage of qualified applicants. This includes jobs in the maintenance department.

A deficit in qualified maintenance professionals presents a trifecta of challenges for manufacturing. First, the baby-boomer generation is retiring at a rate of 10,000 workers per day. This rate of retirement could translate into over 10,000 experienced maintenance professionals leaving manufacturing plants every year for the next ten years. A lot of manufacturing knowledge will leave with them. Furthermore, job openings in the industrial maintenance field will grow by 16 percent through 2024.

Graph showing the growing workforce shortage in manufacturing

Using technology to cross the skills gap

Executives and CEOs understand the problem, but many are in a quandary over what to do about it. How can the operation continue to run smoothly and meet production goals if employees are in classrooms for hours every day?

Technology, which to some degree has widened the skills gap and brought other challenges to manufacturers, also offers solutions. Now that everything else in the factory is connected, the training experience can be too.

Using augmented reality in manufacturing

Augmented reality (AR), which overlays digital information onto the real world, and virtual reality (VR), which offers an immersive, digital environment, offer powerful learning tools. VR and AR programs are a way to bring the instruction to the place where it is needed, as opposed to making employees leave work behind to attend classes. For manufacturers who are most concerned about keeping up the pace of production during educational sessions, AR offers a viable option. Using a phone or headset (like MSFT Hololens) with these capabilities, workers can remain at their stations — and even operate machines — while learning.

Lessons on complex assembly, maintenance, expert support, risk mitigation and quality assurance — all areas that continue to change rapidly — can be delivered via AR to the employee while engaged in these tasks. And when new lessons are added, they can simply be streamed to the AR device without a slowdown in work or production.

Using Microsoft HoloLens (AR) to cross the skills gap

Using virtual reality in manufacturing

VR is also an effective learning tool, especially when it comes to manufacturing processes that pose a physical danger to workers. Rather than learning on the job with the potential to make mistakes, workers can train for difficult jobs in virtual environments.

Smart gadgets have created a world of new challenges for manufacturers. But when it comes to addressing the skills gap, connected gadgets may offer innovative solutions. Nevertheless, human expertise will always be paramount for businesses to stay competitive.

AR and VR offer ways to improve workers’ skills without slowing down production, and manufacturers should explore these means so that employees can stay at the center of operations as Industry 4.0 moves forward.