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Voice of the Essential Worker: Manufacturers Should Listen Closely

From the plant floor to the factory door, those getting it done share their opinions on technology adoption, sustainability, and the future of the industry.

May 31, 2024

Chief Product & Technology Officer Vaibhav Vohra at the Insights 2024 user conference

Earlier this year, Epicor commissioned its second annual survey of manufacturing workers. We canvassed 600 factory or plant employees in the U.S., asking about their work experience and their companies’ adoption of technology into day-to-day operations. 

As thousands of Epicor partners and customers gathered in Nashville to attend our Insights 2024 user conference, the results painted a picture of tempered optimism.

This is the second survey we’ve conducted in as many years and the message from the front lines is clear: manufacturing workers clearly prefer technology-driven, sustainable work environments.

In fact, the survey found that in many instances manufacturing workers are more eager to embrace digital transformation than their employers. When presented with the opportunity to do so, 83% said they worked more efficiently using new tools or technology—perhaps a harbinger of a manufacturing future in which highly skilled workers and advanced technologies can productively coexist.

Also on the plus side, many manufacturing companies are eager to embrace technology and stay at the forefront of emerging innovation. Despite this optimism, several respondents indicated that the transition is going slowly—a delay that could have implications for businesses as well as their employees. Clearly, there are still opportunities for improvement. Consider the following stats:

  • Only 39% of employees characterized their company as being “very modern.”
  • Just 17% said the documents they work with daily are in all-digital form.
  • Less than half of those surveyed—49%—said their company was eager to embrace new technology. 
  • The percentage of respondents from large companies who say their company is investing in new technology “more than ever” dropped from 54% last year to 46% this year.

The good news? Job candidates want to be part of forward-looking organizations that prioritize modernization, new technology adoption, and sustainability.

Manufacturers should proactively seize the moment to respond. As other sectors of the economy undergo digital transformation, manufacturing companies need to keep pace in order to attract and retain talent. And with the industry already facing a potential workforce shortage of more than two million unfilled jobs by 2030, that challenge is only going to become more acute. 

A Game Plan for Manufacturers

These survey results can help guide manufacturers as they seek to find their place in this fast-changing, technology-driven version of their industry. The reality is that implementing new and innovative technologies is more than just a way to improve production processes. When approached strategically, it can also help to attract—and retain—top talent.

How do you put these findings to practical use for your business? Here are a few back-of-the envelope bullet points to consider as you plan your next steps:

Upskill to Thrive in an AI- and Automation-Driven Future 

Because frontline workers in manufacturing will need to adapt to new technologies and innovations, companies should continue to offer learning, upskilling, and reskilling opportunities. This need will be especially acute as job roles change and positions that were once in demand become obsolete. At the same time, new roles are being created in areas that didn't exist five years ago.

Our survey noted that 66% of manufacturing workers are willing to trade their current job for one with more upskilling opportunities. That’s cause for optimism—assuming you can create a great program to teach these skills. First, determine the goals and objectives that will guide your initiatives. Next, make a delivery plan, whether it be through on-the-job training or digital learning systems. Finally, measure and gather feedback from your workers to learn what went well and how you can improve your upskilling capabilities moving forward.

Enhance Engagement 

Does your staff feel part of something bigger than themselves and connected to the mission of your company? Obviously, not every worker has to be overflowing with peak engagement all the time, but it’s in your best interests for morale to remain positive. Survey stats pointing to lower morale should set off alarm bells—manufacturing leaders have no time to let a bad situation deteriorate.

Businesses should take action: they can enhance worker satisfaction through higher pay, more bonuses, expanded benefits, or by offering non-monetary perks like gym memberships, transportation discounts, breakroom snacks, or childcare support. When presented with upskilling and professional development opportunities, flexible work schedules,  leadership training, and quality-of-life benefits, your teams will feel well-led, respected, and encouraged. 

Adapt to Technological Evolutions

When your employees arrive for work, they expect the same level of technology that surrounds them outside of work. Yet the perception among employees that their workplace is “very modern” has decreased from 48% to 39%. The reality is that many workers still lack access to advanced technology on the factory floor or in the manufacturing plant—and this can impact their day-to-day productivity and accomplishments.

It’s up to savvy organizations to create a more modern factory by moving to the cloud, digitizing documents, adopting an ERP to digitally manage the organization, creating a plan for data management, and finding use cases for emerging technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) and augmented reality (AR). 

Prioritize Worker Feedback and Concerns

Imagine the frustration of someone who works around loud machinery all day asking their supervisor repeatedly for ear protection but never getting a response. When your workers have questions or concerns, they ought to be heard. Management that doesn't listen to and acknowledge worker feedback will quickly experience lower morale across the organization.

Everyone should feel empowered to contribute to the manufacturing process, and this need not be a big lift—a few simple steps can make a real difference: provide channels for listening and feedback opportunities, invite employees to share their suggestions on how to make operations run better, then take action on that feedback while tracking and communicating results and resolution.

Embrace Sustainability and Innovation 

The impact of their factory on the environment around them—both in and out of the workplace—is also on manufacturing workers’ minds. Indeed, as workers see sustainable actions going on in other sectors, they want this same level of environmental awareness reflected in their workplace. Our survey found that 55% of respondents would take a pay cut to leave their current company for a more sustainable factory.

Again, it’s in the enlightened self-interests of your company to align business practices with environmental concerns and cutting-edge technologies. Take the first steps by using eco-friendly materials, sourcing from a sustainable supply chain, and collecting, managing, and analyzing data to reduce waste and make your factory more energy-efficient.

The Future of Manufacturing is Here

Clearly, we are at a pivot point in workplace technology that should be managed, not ignored. We know that running a successful manufacturing business requires technology, strategy, and efficiency, as well as involved, challenged, and skilled workers.

When you prepare your workforce for the future by investing in technology and sustainability, upskilling employees, and supporting feedback initiatives, you’ll build a solid foundation of worker engagement, morale, and empowerment upon which your business can thrive and grow.


Vaibhav Vohra talks about how cognitive ERP empowers employees: