With the role of US manufacturing becoming a key political talking point in the past year, some pundits are pointing to industrial automation—not offshoring—as the main threat to manufacturing jobs. After all, if human workers can be replaced by robots, doesn’t that signal the death knell of factory jobs as we know them?
Yes and no. Recent analysis has shown that automation tends to create more jobs than it takes away and that it actually improves job quality and safety for employees. The difference is that jobs in the post-automation world require more skill and creativity than traditional assembly line positions.
This is because industrial robots tend to take the menial and dangerous tasks that require low skill. But human workers are still needed for jobs that involve strategy, design, programming, and decision-making—anything that requires a human brain, not just mechanical brawn. After all, most industrial robots don’t run by themselves; they need a human operator to program and oversee their work.
So in order to stay competitive in the world of industrial robots, just showing up to work faithfully and doing pre-set tasks isn’t going to be enough. You need to be ready to transition to more strategic and creative roles as they become the new norm.
Whether you’re in the market for a new manufacturing job or just want to stay ahead of the curve, here are a few practical steps you can do now:
Be a learner
The first step to staying competitive is more about attitude than a particular skill set. Complacency and stagnation—a.k.a. the “but we’ve always done it this way” or “why fix what isn’t broken?” view—will only hold you back when processes change. Instead, engage your curiosity and be eager to learn new things wherever you are right now.
For example, do you know the whole process of creating your company’s end product, or only your one part? Apply yourself to understand the entire process, whether that means asking coworkers over lunch about their roles or reading up on company literature on your own time.
This big-picture knowledge will make you more flexible as an employee, making it easier for you to transition to a new process or a different job down the road.
Have you noticed bottlenecks, common errors, or other room for improvement in your part of the manufacturing process? Come up with ways you could fix problems and implement a solution if you can.
Be careful to record hard numbers, such as the number of pieces processed per hour, before and after the change. Being able to quantitatively prove the benefits can be key in proving your value to your current employer, and it can also be highly compelling on a resume.
If you’re not in a position to implement those improvements, brainstorm solutions anyway. Research more effective tools your company could potentially invest in, such as better belt conveyor systems or safer floor organization layouts. The knowledge you gain may come in extremely useful down the road. In addition, the mental exercise will teach you to think more critically and creatively, and when a more strategic position arises you may be better equipped to step into it.
Learn the skills you’ll need for the next step up
Want to move up? Determine the most important things your supervisors do and research what it would take to acquire the necessary skills. (You might check their LinkedIn profiles for certifications and degrees).
Do they have affordable certifications that don’t require many perquisites? If you can, work toward attaining these. And if on-the-job training of any sort is available, take advantage of it! The more you know, the more of an edge you’ll have in the job market.
Invest in further education
You may find that your particular field and your ambitions for the future will require more extensive training. If that’s the case, it may be a smart move to invest in continuing education.
This may be as simple as taking a basic programming course. Learning the languages of computer code or even just understanding the theory of how programming works could be an invaluable tool in helping you master industry-specific programming later on. It could also be the start of a new career in programming—which is in high demand during the age of robotics.
If you’re financially able and committed to tackling the growth of industrial automation head-on, it may be time to pursue a degree in engineering, technical design or a related field. You may be able to take courses online or at a local university. Most workers won’t need this level of education, but if you have the drive and the opportunity, it could be a life-changing investment.
The steps above may be different depending on your particular manufacturing industry. But there’s one important theme: take initiative! Don’t stagnate. Learn new skills and increase your value as a worker.
With some smart preparation, you’ll be ready to snatch up the opportunities the automation age brings your way.