Issues & Insights

Skills Development, Not Education, Is Key To Workforce Transformation

As a new decade dawns, the U.S. workforce will face tremendous challenges, but also unprecedented opportunities, especially in manufacturing.

We know that the face of the workforce is changing. As the Wall Street Journal reported in December, American manufacturers are on pace to employ more college graduates than workers with a high school education or those without high school degrees in the next three years. While it is essential for manufacturers to hire developers, coders, analysts, and employees with specialized backgrounds, employees across our manufacturing operations are proving that it doesn’t take an advanced education to have a fulfilling, well-paying career. At Koch, we have close to 2,000 openings in manufacturing roles throughout our enterprise. These openings won’t all be filled by employees with four-year degrees.

Much of the U.S. workforce is facing a future in which their current roles will almost certainly give way to automation, artificial intelligence and other innovations. A recent report by the McKinsey Global Institute highlights the importance of upskilling current employees and supporting programs that prepare the emerging workforce. Without continuing education initiatives and skills training across demographic groups, education levels, and geography, the report found that automation and other technological changes could leave millions of workers behind. That is why manufacturers must encourage alternatives to traditional educational structures while empowering employees with the tools to improve and transform.

By 2028, there could be as many as 2 million unfilled manufacturing jobs across the United States. Filling that gap will require not just a shift in how businesses think about these roles but also how employees can grow with them.

These transformations are happening everywhere we look. Koch Industries employs more than 67,000 people in the United States in various manufacturing and processing facilities. More than 3,400 employees work for Koch companies in Wichita and across Kansas. From fuel to electronics to fibers for clothing, we embrace continual transformation as individual employees and as businesses. We do it not only for the businesses’ long-term success, but with the knowledge that this leads to personal transformation – as employees grow into their roles, develop new skills, build upon their existing talents, and sync personal passion and aptitude with industry change.

Consider Georgia-Pacific master technician Mike Cooper, who started his career in Crossett, Arkansas, more than 40 years ago. He began by unloading toilet paper packages off the factory line and packing them into boxes. Today, Cooper works at Crossett’s Diamond Plant, one of several Georgia-Pacific facilities using autonomous laser-guided vehicles to move product more efficiently. While his position gave way to automation, Cooper saw an opportunity use his prior knowledge to make these laser-guided robots work even smarter. Cooper’s ingenuity has led other Georgia-Pacific facilities to adopt his innovative fix to these autonomous vehicles — resulting in more product being shipped, less shifting of product during transportation, and improving overall efficiency.

Then there is Flint Hills employee Steph Johnson. More than a decade ago, Johnson started out as an administrative assistant in Rosemount, Minnesota. With encouragement to tackle a new challenge from her supervisor, Johnson signed up for an Automation Anywhere course and set up a rudimentary bot, or “robotic process automation,” to streamline her workflow. Recognizing her own capabilities and being encouraged to learn a new skill has now freed Johnson to do higher-value work. These are just some of hundreds of examples of employee empowerment leading to increased transformation.

As economist Joseph Schumpeter once wrote, in business, the ground is constantly “crumbling beneath our feet.” Where the market is trying to create new processes, methods, products, and solutions, we’ve got to be doing that to ourselves rather than have competitors do it to us. Betting on human potential is what gets us there.

Recognizing that manufacturing jobs are requiring new and ever-changing skill sets, the industry must embrace talent that reflects a desire to improve and transform. By empowering those employees who have adopted a real-time, life-long learning mindset – irrespective of their educational attainment – manufacturers will not only keep pace with the rate of change but also drive new transformations.

Walt Malone is vice president of human resources for Koch Industries.

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