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5 Strategies to Drive the Future of Manufacturing Work

Essential Manufacturing Workers say leaders can focus on upskilling opportunities,  employee engagement, technology adoption, and sustainability to improve the worker experience. 

April 17, 2024

Preparing for the future of manufacturing requires technological innovation, great business strategy, and efficient operations. But it also requires an engaged and skilled workforce. For our second annual "Voice of the Essential Manufacturing Worker" report, we asked 600 frontline manufacturing workers about the successes, challenges, hopes, and expectations they experience every day. According to them, here's what the future of manufacturing will look like and the actions leaders can take to improve worker experiences and engagement.

1. Upskill for an AI- and Automation-Driven Future

Workers today seek opportunities to grow and evolve their skills, roles, and career paths. The manufacturing industry is no exception, as frontline workers adapt to new technologies and innovations. Continuous learning, upskilling, and reskilling are crucial to address these growing needs, as roles that were once in demand may have become obsolete, and new roles are being created in areas that didn't exist five years ago. This is why 66% of manufacturing workers are willing to trade their current job for one with more upskilling opportunities, which highlights the growing demand for continuous learning alongside new technologies.

To create a great upskilling program, you first need to 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 in the future.

2. Combat Declining Morale by Enhancing Engagement

Does your staff come to work eager to see what they can build or contribute to that day? Do they feel confident in what they do and feel like they're growing in their career? Do they feel part of something bigger than themselves and connected to the mission of your company? Or do workers drag in late because they're bored at their jobs, have conflicts with their coworkers or supervisor, and don't feel like they're contributing to anything?

Not every worker has to be overflowing with peak engagement all the time, but morale should remain fairly high and positive. However, the number of workers who say morale is high at their company has dropped from 52% to 45%. This, coupled with an increase in low morale from 7% to 16%, signals the need for manufacturing leaders to pay attention to enhancing worker satisfaction.

Manufacturing leaders can improve their workforce’s morale through higher pay, more bonuses, or expanded benefits, or by offering non-monetary perks like gym memberships, transportation discounts, breakroom snacks, or childcare support. Additionally, smart businesses offer workers upskilling or professional development opportunities, flexible work schedules, and leadership training—this helps ensure that teams are well-led and workers feel respected and encouraged. 

3. Adapt to Technological Evolutions

Technology adoption is accelerating rapidly, and workers experience this every day, from using AI filters on social media to filling out documents online. When your employees step into the factory or onto the jobsite, they expect the same level of technology that surrounds them outside of work. However, many workers still lack access to advanced technology in the workplace, which has an impact on their day-to-day productivity and accomplishments. This is why the perception of workplaces being “very modern” has decreased from 48% to 39%, indicating a discrepancy between worker expectations and current technological investments.

Create a more modern factory by moving to the cloud, digitizing your documents, adopting an ERP to digitally manage your organization, creating a plan for data management, and finding use cases for emerging technologies like AI and AR. 

4. Prioritize Worker Feedback and Concerns

When your workers have questions or concerns throughout the day, are they being heard? Imagine the frustration of someone who works around loud machinery all day asking their supervisor repeatedly for ear protection but never getting it. Or imagine the dropping morale of someone who sees a method in which to automate a certain task, eagerly shows it to leadership, but is immediately brushed off. Imagine a woman or person of color working in your factory who is experiencing harassment, and eventually quits after their issues aren't taken seriously by management.

In our report, one of the top five reasons for low morale is that management doesn’t listen to work feedback. Additionally, the top attribute of a bad supervisor is poor communication. This signals the need for more deliberate feedback measures to hear and address worker concerns. Manufacturing leaders can improve their organization's communication by providing channels for listening and feedback opportunities, taking action on feedback and communicating its results, and tracking the amount of feedback and its resolution.

5. Embrace Sustainability and Innovation

Having a sustainable business is becoming more important today, but it isn't just business leaders who are looking to make sustainable change. Sustainability is on factory workers’ minds as well—just as they see technology around them that they want their workplace to embrace, they see sustainable actions around them that they want reflected in their workplace, too. This is why 55% of respondents would take a pay cut to leave their current company for a more sustainable factory, underlining the importance of aligning business practices with environmental concerns and cutting-edge technologies.

Improve your organization's sustainability efforts by collecting, managing, and analyzing data to reduce waste, use eco-friendly materials and source from a sustainable supply chain, and make your factory energy efficient.

Prepare for the Future of Manufacturing

Running a successful manufacturing business requires technology, strategy, and efficiency, as well as engaged and skilled workers. Prepare for the future of manufacturing by investing in technology and sustainability, upskilling your workers, improving morale, and supporting feedback initiatives—these essential steps will help build a solid foundation of worker engagement upon which your business can thrive and grow.

Download the full report for more in-depth insights and data to better support your workforce and adapt to the evolving manufacturing landscape.