Smart Factory Tours Aim to Introduce Students to Industry 4.0 Jobs

With record low unemployment in the U.S., it has become increasingly difficult to find workers interested in pursuing factory jobs, especially as manufacturing becomes more high-tech.

According to a 2018 study by Deloitte and the Manufacturing Institute, an estimated 2.4 million factory positions will go unfilled between 2018 and 2028, with a potential impact of $2.5 trillion in lost economic output and productivity. The study also found that manufacturing positions relating to digital talent, skilled production, and operational managers may be three times as difficult to fill in the next three years.

There’s a skills gap in the industry, in which older workers need additional training to work in modern tech-enabled factories. But there’s also a lack of understanding among young talent that in 2019, factory work isn’t always the stultifying, repetitive job of the past—it now involves technologies like the Internet of things, 3D printing, virtual and augmented reality, robots, artificial intelligence, and more.

Automation Alley, a statewide tech and manufacturing business association, is working to shrink the skills gap as well as entice young people to pursue manufacturing work. The organization’s executive director, Tom Kelly, says “the talent situation is dire everywhere. But with Michigan manufacturing, it’s even more dire.”

That talent disconnect is the impetus behind a new Automation Alley program called MI Smart Factory Tour. The tours allow university students from across the country to access the state’s most innovative factories and explore the technologies therein. Kelly calls the program a win-win: students are exposed to smart factory jobs while also getting a chance to check out Michigan. In addition, the tours facilitate matchmaking between companies hungry for young employees and kids who are considering a technical career, Kelly says.

Automation Alley piloted the idea last fall, when 20 students from Ohio University’s Russ College of Engineering and Technology made the trip up to the Great Lakes State, visiting Fori Automation, Parker Hannifin, Hirotech, and FANUC. The kids, Kelly observes, tended to engage most with the manufacturers that have technology they’re interested in working on. Automation Alley has funded the launch and development phase of the program. The tours are free for universities, and the participating manufacturers pay a fee to be included.

“Both the manufacturers and the students had a great time,” Kelly says. “Four students got job offers from that one trip. We have to grab the tiger by the tail here—how can we create a mechanism to arrest brain drain so college kids don’t just look to the coasts? If they want to work on 3D printing or AI, that’s happening here in Michigan on our manufacturing floors.”

Kelly says the intention is to open the program to “anyone and everyone. Larger manufacturers tend to get all the press, but mid-market companies are doing equally cool things.” The state’s industrial industry is strong, he adds, with more work than employees to perform it.

“Manufacturers are turning work away because of the talent shortage,” Kelly continues. “There’s no short-term fix; it’s a combination of automation and skills training. We don’t have the labor pool we had 20 years ago, and that’s limiting growth potential. Our program bends the arc a little.”

Kelly says there are two more tours scheduled so far for 2019. Universities interested in taking a tour, or manufacturers that want to host a tour, should contact Automation Alley.

Sarah Schmid Stevenson is the editor of Xconomy Detroit/Ann Arbor. You can reach her at 313-570-9823 or sschmid@xconomy.com. Follow @XconomyDET_AA

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