Nearly 12 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product is generated in the manufacturing industry alone. Over the next 10 years, 3.5 million manufacturing jobs will be needed, of which it is estimated that almost two million will be left unfilled.

On top of that, 22 percent of the current manufacturing workforce of 12.4 million will be retiring in less than a decade. In fact, we can estimate that there will be about 900 baby-boomer manufacturing workers retiring every single day for the next 19 years.

As if dealing with ever-changing technologies, foreign cost-based competition and automation were not challenging enough, the great shortfall in the skilled workforce has the potential to become the proverbial straw that breaks the back of the U.S. manufacturing camel. This is especially the case for legacy manufacturing companies in industries such as aerospace, automotive and machine tools.

Fortunately, there is a way out and a way forward. The antidote to this doom-and-gloom scenario is based on the foundation of three As: automation, apprenticeship and always-on learning.


Automation, along with its counterparts artificial intelligence, machine learning and the internet of things, are expected to absorb nearly 47 percent of U.S. jobs in the next two decades, according to a 2013 University of Oxford study. It is entirely conceivable that a sizable number of these jobs will be in manufacturing. While on the surface, that does not appear to be great news, a majority of those jobs are tedious, unsafe, unsecure and not particularly well paid. These disappearing jobs will “reappear” as creative, problem-solving and collaborative human initiatives that also pay top dollar.


For collaborative human initiatives (jobs, gigs, freelance work and consultancy) to be successful, apprenticeship programs become the fertile grounds for sharing, nurturing and transferring knowledge, skills and wisdom. However, unlike the apprenticeship programs of the past, these apprenticeships will involve a partnership between mentor and mentee. While the mentor will transfer experience and skills-based knowledge to the mentee, the digital native mentee, in turn, will enrich the mentor’s life by sharing the skills needed to prolong and enhance his or her career. Keep in mind that the mentee of today will become the mentor of tomorrow, because the need to keep pace with future technological changes, without losing the wisdom of the past, would rest on the shoulders of the apprenticeship system.

Always-On Learning

That brings us to the component that is of most interest to the learning and development community: always-on learning. Learning never truly stops for the manufacturing workforce. Technology, processes, machines, materials and customer preferences will continue to change with bewildering speed, making it incumbent on employees to keep pace, not reactively or obliviously, but proactively and with mindfulness.

The worker of today and tomorrow will no longer be a button pusher or an order taker. Rather, he or she will be a collaborative and thinking partner who can make intelligent decisions based on information, logic and collective experience – his or her own and that of co-workers and supervisors. In an era of intelligent automation, when a machine halts or makes unusual noises, how much faster, efficient and productive would it be for workers to have access to tools, information and knowledge so that they can make intelligent decisions?

However, for a culture of always-on learning to permeate an organization, we must give workers access to digital always-on process and performance improvement platforms that give access to relevant content. Such content includes how-to videos, microlearning modules, interactive 3D models, virtual and augmented reality apps, masterclass podcasts, and more. This content should be housed in an all-in-one, easy-to-access, easy-to-navigate technology portal that allows multiple pathways to content, including QR codes, portal logins, iBeacons, apps and digital assistants. No longer will you see employees lugging around outdated manuals. Multiple modalities of content will flow to workers through the pathways that are most comfortable and natural for them.

It is not technology or costs that hinder the development of an empowered, super-productive and motivated workforce. Rather, it is our inability to transcend the boundaries of what-has-always-been with a forceful vision of what can be. There is no better time to start than now.