Industry 4.0 is advancing learning curves at a pace matched only by the astounding technological innovations involved. The people working on the shop floor are changing as well; as 10,000 employees reach retirement age every day in the U.S., a new generation of workers is taking their place.

From a training perspective, it’s a perfect storm. We need to cope with a changing industry and new training scenarios while capturing knowledge and onboarding a new workforce of tech-savvy digital natives — and continuously improving our processes and procedures.

Fortunately, as processes become more advanced and complex, so do the tools available to solve the problem of the growing skills gap. Today’s manufacturers need to adjust their approach to onboarding, standard work and skills management in order to cope with these challenges.


“70% of employees report that they do not have mastery of the skills they need for their jobs” (digital natives).

Traditionally, classroom training and eLearning modules in learning management systems (LMSs) do the bulk of the work in the onboarding process. However, training professionals find over and over again that this learning doesn’t stick.

New recruits often experience “content dumping,” which causes information overload and results in limited retention. They receive a lot of information at once without a clear understanding of how it’s relevant to their jobs. Usually, the learning materials aren’t practical enough for long-term retention and optimal performance on the job.

By the time these new employees are on the shop floor, they’ve forgotten most of their training, creating a serious risk for human error. And even small errors can lead to major safety issues, product defects and expensive machine downtime: In fact, more than 80% of defects in manufacturing operations are due to human error, according to industrial-organizational psychologist Ginette M. Collazo.

Fortunately, on-the-job training and workflow learning are powerful methods for long-term knowledge retention and skills optimization.

A Culture Shift

We need to reimagine the onboarding process as a comprehensive system that prepares the deskless workforce for their roles and continuously supports their success on the shop floor. Models of continuous improvement don’t apply if improving is cumbersome, impractical or inefficient.

This shift is made possible by interventions with new technology and a better understanding of the target audience. As such, it’s helpful to reimagine onboarding in a way that offers task-oriented digital support.

The Onboarding Process: Then and Now

Onboarding Then vs. Now

Why is the traditional onboarding process flawed?

    • It assumes that recruits need extensive classroom and LMS training before they can work on the shop floor.
    • Employees are disconnected from the workplace while in training and cannot put learning into practice immediately.
    • It doesn’t familiarize new recruits with the tools and materials they will use on the shop floor.
    • It is usually cost-ineffective and takes a lot of time that employees could have spent productively on the shop floor.
    • It doesn’t recognize workers’ existing skills.

What should modern manufacturing onboarding look like?

onboarding before vs. always


The time before a new recruit hits the shop floor is critical. Manufacturers can prepare employees by providing immersive materials that clearly communicate expectations and familiarize learners with workplace processes. Welcome videos and immersive practice with new tools will help team members understand expectations and prepare for their roles.

But working in a manufacturing environment is more than just the daily work; a positive and improvement-focused culture is crucial. Long-term operational excellence depends on a blend of process, results and a positive culture. Using the preboarding period to highlight expected values and behavior will contribute to successful cultural onboarding.

During Onboarding

The onboarding process presents opportunities to intervene in and improve upon traditional strategies with innovative tools. The new generation of workers was raised in the era of handheld digital devices, so they quickly acclimate to using them as a medium to accomplish tasks. Ideally, new recruits receive a preconfigured smartphone or tablet with the tools and information they’ll need to do their jobs.

These devices not only deliver information in a format optimized for digital natives, but they also help foster better learning and deliver operation-critical knowledge in the moment of need. Digital work instructions, for example, enable machine operators to swipe through the steps of a procedure while they’re performing it. This approach creates purpose and action while decreasing the number of human errors caused by a lack of operational knowledge.

Always Improving

Training and onboarding shouldn’t end at a designated time during an employee’s development. Instead, manufacturers should design and implement a continuous loop of knowledge capture, sharing, tracking and improvements involving the entire team.

Digital tools enable manufacturers to easily adapt processes, procedures and work instructions based on employee feedback. They can evaluate this feedback and implement it to capture crucial knowledge while improving operational performance and minimizing downtime.

Optimizing Skills Development

As processes and procedures change to incorporate more advanced technologies, and as new workers are brought into the organization, it’s essential to continuously assess and develop key skills. Fortunately, there are many solutions that empower manufacturers to understand, develop and deploy shop floor workers and their skills.

The first step in successful skills management is to understand and map the tasks, and their corresponding skills, that exist within a production environment. Comprehensive skills portfolios enable organizations to identify gaps and address absences while pushing the necessary training to the relevant employees.

Filling Skills Gaps on the Factory Floor

In the same way that manufacturers can train new hires using experiential learning, they can reinforce OJT by delivering relevant work instructions and other training materials directly to employees during their daily work. Experiential learning makes reskilling easier and faster, because knowledge sticks longer when it’s practiced in the environment where it will be applied.

In the rare situations where these work instructions or standard operating procedures (SOPs) aren’t enough, remote guidance is crucial to successful reskilling. Many platforms enable machine operators and field service engineers to connect with a colleague or support agent to quickly resolve issues.

Manufacturing Success Through Continuous Learning

Success in manufacturing is multidimensional and complex. It starts with a radically different strategy to the way we deliver training and performance support on the shop floor.

Manufacturers cannot use digital work instructions and the platforms that support them like traditional training tools. Rather, they must use them as agile, modern solutions that enable provide continuous training, skills management and reskilling throughout an employee’s career. Most importantly, they should use them in a way that makes sense to a digitally native workforce.

It’s time to change the way we think about work on the shop floor.