The Story That Manufacturing Job Statistics Won't Tell You

When the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) releases its monthly manufacturing job numbers, most people following the markets pay attention. Why? Because like the canary in the coal mine, slowing or declining manufacturing jobs have historically been an indicator of a weakening economy.

In 2016, the BLS has reported relatively flat numbers in the manufacturing sector. While June added some jobs, previous months lost many more.

Although recent trends show that traditional manufacturing jobs appear to be going away, Deloitte is still projecting America to be the most competitive manufacturing economy in the world by 2020, even surpassing China.

So, how is this possible considering we're losing industrial job positions each month?

The Digital Disruption
Not included in these manufacturing numbers are the burgeoning number of new roles that are powering the digital disruption happening in manufacturing. The same skills required of software developers at the likes of Google, Facebook and Amazon are now being applied to the manufacturing industry to create this new breed of worker to automate the front-end and the back-end of the manufacturing process, as well as using digital tools throughout the process to drive efficiency.

This new approach--sometimes referred to as Manufacturing 4.0--is a major, disruptive force.

Unlike offshoring to China, a practice that reduces the manufacturing workforce and offers little benefit to productivity and innovation, digital disruption has the ability to create enormous job opportunities and operational efficiencies in the industrial segment. It's true that the manufacturing employment landscape is changing, and that is evident in the BLS manufacturing job numbers--but these changes will allow the industry to evolve and grow to meet Deloitte's predictions.

New Business Models Drive Change
Evolving consumer demands, improvements in technology (including the industrial internet of things) and shorter product life cycles have forced manufacturers to rethink their traditional business models. Along with new strategies comes a transformation of the core jobs and roles needed to support digital manufacturing (versus traditional manufacturing).

Manufacturers are retooling for low-volume, high-mix production, the idea of manufacturing small quantities of many different customized products to meet customers' unique needs. They are tapping into sophisticated supply chain technologies and moving production operations closer to customers to improve speed and lower costs. Mass production is taking a back seat to mass customization and personalization of products.

Processes that required manual production, paper work and hands-on support have been reduced. But other skillsets such as information technology, digital design, digital production management, supply chain management, big data, analytics and integration are in high demand.

It's easy to see the impact these changes have made when we look at a specific, small-scale example, such as creating a custom prototype. In the past, this could take many months of designing, testing, iterating and building, only to back up and restart after the testing phase. Today, digital tools including design software, virtual testing and analytics, paired with rapid prototyping and production technologies, allow product developers to reduce this formerly lengthy process to mere days in some cases.

And this digital renaissance is not limited to 3D printing technologies. Traditional processes like CNC machining and injection molding have achieved amazing advances in quality, efficiency and speed because of software and hardware automation, too.

This quick turnaround has become critical in an age where low-volume, high-mix production is becoming the norm. The ability to transition quickly throughout the entire product life cycle process will help manufacturers stay on top of consumer demand and take advantage of trends.

Enabling the Modern Manufacturing Workforce
So, despite a reduction in traditional manufacturing roles, digital manufacturing is actually creating thousands of new jobs and reinventing many of the old ones typically associated with the industry. The new jobs require a greater level of digital literacy and often come with higher pay. For example, entry-level mold technicians can make more than $75,000 per year right out of school, and software developers in the digital manufacturing space often bring in more than $100,000 per year.

The challenge that all manufacturers now face is making sure we're preparing our labor force for the jobs of today and tomorrow, not yesterday. We can make big strides by expanding and extending apprenticeship opportunities; continuing to invest in training and development programs; and working to influence STEM at every level of education. But we need to start now because there is already a huge talent shortage in digital manufacturing.

The job numbers released by the BLS don't tell the full story. Global manufacturing continues to be strong--driven by ingenuity, opportunity and consumer demand. As long as we embrace and nurture change and look at the big picture, we can see a clear shift and high demand for the new digital skills and roles that are powering manufacturing, rather than just a decrease in traditional manufacturing opportunities.

It's a great time to invest in education for those both within our industry today and those entering the workforce. Because we're not losing manufacturing jobs, the roles are just evolving to embrace an important digital shift.