The manufacturing industry has gone through profound changes in 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced many companies to accelerate digital transformation and remodel operations around social distancing norms. Despite their best efforts, the record increase in unemployment couldn’t be helped. And now, many unemployed workers are wondering if there will continue to be a place for them in today’s manufacturing sector since automation is steadily shaping the factory of the future.

Author Radiana Pit | Copperberg

In reality, automation is not eliminating job opportunities for workers — it’s actually creating them. And this is especially true now that the pandemic has prompted manufacturers to shift to localized production and accelerate digital transformation on the factory floor. 

With production moving closer to consumers and Industry 4.0 technology becoming ubiquitous on the factory floor, manufacturers now have the opportunity to create higher-paying jobs and invest in reskilling and upskilling. But despite these potential opportunities and the large number of unemployed people looking for work, there are still recruiting challenges that need to be addressed.

Talent challenges and opportunities

Even before the pandemic, manufacturers worldwide were facing a shortage of workers. And although now more and more companies are preparing for the recovery stage, the demand for new workers is likely to be soft, at least until the status quo becomes less volatile. 

However, the demand that does exist includes requirements for certain skills or willingness to acquire new skills. But for this demand to be fulfilled, the manufacturing sector has to overcome one of the most longstanding challenges it has ever faced, as well as other hurdles that have been created by digital transformation, a skills gap, and the pandemic.

1. The serious image problem

Boring, outdated, and not creative — this is how younger generations of employees view the manufacturing industry, according to Seema Pajula, vice chairman and US Clients, Industries, and Insights Leader for Deloitte. Furthermore, because it’s such a male-dominated industry, women find manufacturing workplaces less appealing.

Truth be told, the negative perceptions toward the manufacturing industry are a big reason why organizations have a hard time acquiring new talent. And while this is not easy to digest, it’s a problem that has been affecting the industry for so long that it can’t be swept under the rug anymore.

Now, manufacturers have to try to become more appealing to younger generations and women. Otherwise, the economic impact of unfilled positions can create productivity losses of up to $2.5 trillion by 2028, according to Deloitte. 

To appeal to these audiences, organizations should refine the way they present their corporate values and people. For millennials, inclusivity, and environmental and social conscience are incredibly important, so companies should align with these values and address them with transparency.

This is extremely important, especially because the most skilled and experienced workforce in the manufacturing industry is aging and rapidly approaching retirement. And this creates a skill and talent gap that cannot be filled by machines or robots, as so many people nowadays imagine.

2. The fear of automation

People have always been afraid that technology will replace them. But the reality is that technology is a job-creating machine, according to a study conducted by Deloitte in 2015 which showed that over the preceding 144 years, technology created more jobs than it destroyed.

In fact, today’s smart and connected technology is making manual jobs less physically demanding which has a positive impact on productivity and, ultimately, customer value. Forward-thinking manufacturers, especially those who have already embraced IoT-enabled technology, can use this to attract talent. 

As Carolyn Lee, executive director of the Manufacturing Institute, said: Too few people know what’s in the big buildings that line the highways. By showing how high-tech makes an employee’s job easier, manufacturers can renew interest in manufacturing positions.

Smart factories today (and in the future) need workers who are digital adopters or digital natives, and the only way to attract that type of workforce is to raise awareness and adopt a less hierarchical structure that enables workers to see why their job responsibilities are essential in the greater chain.

3. Health and safety concerns

The pandemic has affected the manufacturing industry like nothing else in recent years. Some companies had to shut down, others had to accelerate their digital transformation initiatives, but all of them experienced workforce gaps created by medical absences and unavoidable layoffs. This has forced many companies to rethink their recruitment strategies and turn to their contingent workforce as a cost-saving measure.

Moving forward, ensuring safety and protecting health will become key attractions for workers in the manufacturing sector. Companies need to review their policies and establish protective measures that facilitate employee well-being. Otherwise, existing and potential workers will be uneasy to return to the factory and decrease the manufacturing workforce capacity.


The manufacturing industry is experiencing change on a fundamental level. Many of the adjustments made since the beginning of the pandemic and the acceleration of digital transformation are permanently changing the way manufacturers do business. 

Most forward-thinking leaders are unlikely to resume the work arrangements made before the pandemic and are looking for new ways to operate in the new normal. This also includes re-architecting work, remodeling the workforce, and preparing the workplace for any future disruptions or states of uncertainty.

These remodeling efforts are creating new job opportunities and will continue to do so in the future. According to Monster, there has already been a steady increase in new manufacturing job postings since June 2020. Manufacturers are currently seeking talent for roles such as team assemblers, machinists, production workers, inspectors, testers, sorters, samplers, operating workers, fabricators, welders, cutters, and welder fitters.

To attract the talent they seek, organizations should consider creating new opportunities for women and invest in learning programs to upskill and reskill their workforce in order to close the existing gap.

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