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May 12, 2021

70% of GDP growth in the global economy between now and 2030 will be driven by machines, according to PwC. This is a near $7 trillion dollar contribution to U.S. GDP based around the combined production from artificial intelligence, machine learning, robotics, and embedded devices. This is the rise of a new machine economy.

 

For those not familiar with the machine economy, it’s where the smart, connected, autonomous, and economically independent machines or devices carry out the necessary activities of production, distribution, and operations with little or no human intervention. The development of this economy is how Industry 4.0 becomes a reality. 

Visionary leaders will implement new technologies and combine them with capital investments in ways that help them grow, expand, diversify, and actually improve lives. These machine economy leaders will operate in a new intelligent systems world in thousands of companies that will drive new economic models globally.

Sounds good so far, but all of that autonomous machinery isn’t going to build and operate itself.

While most people would agree that manufacturing is an important part of our economy, they aren’t recommending their children pursue that line of work. It’s expected that 4.6 million manufacturing jobs created between now and 2028 will go unfilled. Key drivers for this change include the fact that 10,000 baby boomers retire every day without people to replace them. The workforce is quickly losing the second-largest age group, and millennials (the largest group) have so far not been attracted to manufacturing jobs at large. Instead they tend to be drawn toward technology, engineering, finance. The underlying issue may be one of perception, as the future of manufacturing will in fact include a much higher degree of technology, engineering, and finance in order to function.

Manufacturing jobs are changing. The number of purely manual, repetitive tasks are shrinking as technology advances to handle those jobs with robots and automation. Fifty percent of manufacturers have already adopted some form of automation, and now they need people with critical thinking, programming, and digital skills. Tomorrow’s jobs have titles such as Digital Twin Engineer, Robot Teaming Coordinator, Drone Data Coordinator, Smart Scheduler, Factory Manager, Safety Supervisor, and so on.

An unskilled position can be filled relatively quickly as the prerequisite qualifications are limited. It typically takes months to fill a skilled position, and in most cases much longer for an individual to develop the requisite skills before they even think to apply. One alternative is to lower requirements in terms of education, skill, and experience in order to get someone new in the position, but then companies have to absorb the entire expense of training them. Meanwhile there is increased pressure to utilize existing people’s and teams’ times and skills as much as possible, which can lead to burnout. This is a tenuous cycle that needs to be fortified by making sure our workforce has the skills training they need, when and where they need it.

In order to thrive in the machine economy, we need to invest significantly in people as well as in infrastructure. Focusing purely on infrastructure might lead to short-term and maybe mid-term profits, but ultimately it is not sustainable, and everyone loses. One can’t simply say, “We couldn’t fill the positions,” while there are people who need work.

The human capacity to learn is basically limitless when individuals are motivated and have access to something to learn. There are several ways to tap into that capacity. First, we need to capture the knowledge and experience of the employees we have, so that those relevant skills can be passed on to the next wave of workers. We also need to ensure relevant training is available for people at every level of the company so that new people get up to speed and tenured employees don’t get left behind. While some technologies need to be learned on the job, there is a level of foundational skill to understand in the machine economy, in addition to the technical and vocational skills required within a given field. An investment in, and possibly partnerships with, local schools could be a wise move for many companies. Lastly, while college is a great path for many people, it’s not the only form of higher education. Investments in vocational training and apprenticeship programs will be critical for our society to thrive in the machine economy.

Just as workers need to rethink and develop new skills, employers need to rethink and develop new ways of nurturing and attracting talent. To fully realize the promise of the machine economy, it is incumbent upon us to ensure people have access to the training and the tools they need in order to not only be successful but thrive. After all, what’s the point of all this technology if it doesn’t make life better for everyone?