When employed in tandem, workforce development and automation can future-proof your precast operation.
By Alex Morales, M. Ed.
Manufacturers across North America are experiencing difficulty finding skilled employees who possess a desire to commit to manufacturing careers. The fear is that this issue, which is currently affecting the construction and precast concrete industries, may worsen over time.
By 2025, 3.5 million jobs will be available in manufacturing – up to 2 million may go unfilled due to lack of available talent.1 To counteract these difficulties, precasters can turn to workforce development practices and automation systems, which will help their operations stand out among other manufacturing environments as the preferred place to work.
The three basic tenets of a solid workforce development strategy are attracting, training and retaining talent. Attracting talent, especially in anticipation of the workforce shortage prediction for 2025, means understanding the incoming generation and contextualizing the work in your plant in ways that appeal to them.2 Max Cikerle, sales and marketing director for Schlüsselbauer’s North
American market, believes that means making more than just human resources changes.
“We are an old industry and have been doing the same old thing for a long time,” he said. “In other countries, concrete plants are clean working environments where some even vacuum the floors.
To attract the new generation of employees, we have to change the way we think all around.”
Precasters should reevaluate all processes, including advertising a vacancy, how they onboard and treat incoming workers, and how they manufacture products overall.
After attracting new workers, the next step in workforce development is training.3 According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median employee tenure in the United States – or the point at which exactly half of all workers had more tenure and half had less tenure – was only 4.1 years as of January 2020.4 This means that training should begin immediately upon hire to capture the passion of new employees early and encourage them to stay.
Despite its advantages, training alone is insufficient as a retention strategy.5 Retention strategies should incorporate what you learned about the incoming generation when working to attract them. They should also include an effort to cultivate relationships with new employees. This can include listening to what’s important to them individually along with enacting change or adding value as determined by their feedback.
“Retention is about better, cleaner and safer work environments for our team to treat employees better – not taking plant floor workers for granted,” Cikerle said.
Even with a solid workforce development strategy, some manufacturers experience continued difficulty finding talent. The prevalence of technology jobs or options in the gig economy can exacerbate workforce shortages for precasters, leading some to consider automation to reduce the required number of full-time workers.
Automation is changing the landscape for many precast plants by making the production process more consistent, more efficient, safer and less labor-intensive. The reduction in required labor causes many to consider automation as a replacement for workforce development activities. Balancing labor costs with the capital investment required to automate will vary from plant to plant.
Precasters should consider costs and ask questions like:
- What percentage of our current processes can be automated?
- How much will it cost to purchase equipment, install it and train employees on the new system?
- What labor cost savings can I realize after automating?
However, considering automation is not just about the process, equipment and labor.
“There is a certain level of volume that needs to exist to create financial payback for any kind of capital investment like automation,” said Brad Schmidgall, CEO at Afinitas. “But that volume really depends on the market.”
The cost of raw materials, maintaining equipment, current staffing levels and more are impacted by production volume. These factors must be taken into consideration, along with the plant’s market pricing for their products.
“Sooner or later, manufacturers will have no choice concerning automation, regardless of size,” Cikerle noted. “Because it’s about creating better work environments for employees with technology.”
“For a long time, the precast industry has been a construction site under a roof,” he said.
“It’s time to transition to a true factory environment and identify as manufacturers with measurable processes and systems.”
Automation and training
Besides the potential cost savings and process improvements, precasters need to consider the cost and/or practicality of advancing current workers, asking questions such as:
- What new skills are needed to work in the automated environment?
- Do any of my current employees already possess the skills needed?
- For employees who do not possess the necessary skills, is my current crew amenable to change and able to upskill?
“Another driving factor in automation isn’t just replacing the cost of labor – it’s that you can’t find labor,” Schmidgall said. “Across the entire world, it is becoming increasingly more difficult to find skilled and reliable labor to work in a manual precast facility.”
With predictions that skilled labor shortages will become more problematic over time, the ability of current employees to upskill and succeed in a new, automated production environment is paramount. As such, training is not necessarily an area of potential savings when evaluating a decision concerning whether to automate. Analyzing comparative data between the training required to onboard new employees into your current plant environment and the training that would be required of current employees within an entirely new automated production system is recommended.
New type of employee
The skill set required of employees in an automated environment differs from that of employees in a traditional precast plant. A report from McKinsey Global Institute states, “The adoption of automation … will transform the workplace … will also change the skills required of human workers.”6 The report predicts that by 2030, there will be a 14% decrease in the number of man-hours spent on physical and manual tasks and a 15% decrease in man-hours spent using basic cognitive skills. In the same timeframe, the report predicts a 55% increase in the number of man-hours spent using technological skills. This represents an incredible shift in skills over a 15-year period, which may make it difficult to upskill quickly.
“We’ve worked with one plant where an employee who used to manually install inverts in manholes thrived in the upgraded environment that was less strenuous,” Cikerle said. “In other plants, employees had difficulty adapting to change.”
Schmidgall thinks the new, younger generation’s experience with technology may help plants automate.
“It’s a perfect population to work in a high-technology environment,” he said. “They’re technologically savvy and are less likely to be intimidated by technological advances on the plant floor than some long-time employees.”
According to Schmidgall, knowing your staff and planning accordingly will put your plant in the best position for future success.
“When a precaster builds an automated facility, I’ve found that it can be highly beneficial to bring in a new plant manager or lead maintenance engineer from the outside – specifically one who has worked in highly automated environments like the automotive industry,” he said. “They bring a background in preventative maintenance that is helpful and are typically not intimidated by automated equipment and their control systems.”
The decision to find a new type of employee brings us back to the three-part workforce development strategy. You will still need to attract, train and retain this new, experienced employee as well as the new tech-savvy employees that the automated environment will attract.
Automation for the workforce
If you’ve considered automating processes in your plant to create an environment that requires fewer employees, you will find that it becomes a workforce development strategy itself, rather than a replacement.
“Automation doesn’t just reduce labor, it eliminates steps in production, enables you to create a leaner process and improves the plant floor work environment,” Cikerle said.
Schmidgall added that automation is generally successful for those who implement it at their plants.
“Not one of the people I know who have embraced the new generation of workers and new automated environments regrets their decision,” he said.
Automation and plant floor process improvements are solid strategies to help attract younger generations. But even the most advanced production environments still need to attract, train and retain their employees. Automation is not a substitute for workforce development tactics. It does, however, offer a good start to enhancing your plant environment as you work to remain a competitive employer in the industry.
Alex Morales, M.Ed., is NPCA’s director of workforce development.