Voice of the Industry

A manufacturing industry survey highlights workers’ concerns

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As I consider the findings of Epicor’s 2024 “Voice of the Essential Manufacturing Worker” study, I can’t help but think of the immortal opening to Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities.”

In so many ways, the sentiments of U.S. manufacturing workers, circa 2024, point to a split picture. It’s an age of worker commitment – and also an age of workers seeking inspiration elsewhere. It’s a time of wavering morale as well as a time of immense pride in the work itself. It’s a season to challenge technology, but also a season when more workers than ever are eager to embrace it.

Highly motivated manufacturing workers love what they do, are driven by a purpose and see a positive career path.

Yet the dichotomy revealed in this year’s survey responses shouldn’t be too surprising. The manufacturing industry as a whole is, after all, in the midst of its own kind of revolution. Severe labor shortages are projected well into the future, supply chains and partner ecosystems are undergoing a shakeup and technology is transforming work from the C-Suite to the factory floor.

So, is the industry on the cusp of another Golden Age? Or is it going “direct the other way,” as Dickens would have put it?

I, for one, feel very hopeful about the direction in the industry. First let’s review the workers’ results, which are based on a survey of 600 U.S. factory or plant workers representing a spectrum of job titles (nearly 150 of whom cited “primary metal, fabricated metal and machinery” as the primary goods they manufacture).

Key survey findings

Engagement in the workplace:

  • A little less than half – 45 percent – of respondents say morale at their current company is high. That’s a drop from 52 percent in last year’s survey. Meanwhile, low morale rose from 7 percent to 16 percent.
  • Those with high morale attribute it to bonuses or higher pay, flexible work schedules and management that listens to staff.
  • Creating a better workplace starts by listening to staff. Respondents say management can create a better workplace by offering more paid time off, flexible work schedules, and better tools and technology.

More technology and the skills to use them:

  • 56 percent of respondents would take a pay cut to work for a more technology-driven factory. In addition, compared to last year’s results, fewer respondents (52 percent to 64 percent) believe their job will be replaced by automation.
  • 83 percent who had the opportunity to use new tools or technologies say they worked more efficiently as a result – indicating that many workers may feel more comfortable with newer technologies given greater on-the-job exposure.
  • Respondents named four primary technologies that their factories or plants are using – Big Data (41 percent); 3-D printing (39 percent); robotics or artificial intelligence (AI; 37 percent); and augmented reality (36 percent).
  • 70 percent say their company is making upskilling a priority – but there’s a yellow flag in the 10-point slip relative to last year’s findings.
  • Of those prioritizing upskilling, top initiatives include giving workers on-site and on-the-job training, giving access to online training platforms, and covering tuition for courses and training.
The recently released survey offers plenty of insights into the state of manufacturing, including the skills gap and labor shortage data.

Sustainability at the factory:

  • 55 percent of respondents say they would take a pay cut to go work for a more sustainable factory.
  • Only 45 percent say their organization is making sustainability a high priority.

Turnover and challenges:

  • 43 percent of respondents are considering leaving their job in the next year. While that’s a significant drop from last year’s number – 56 percent – workers continue to seek out more ideal conditions to achieve work/life balance, including more paid time off, flexible work schedules and supervisors listening to staff.
  • The increased cost of raw materials is their biggest challenge. They’re also challenged by bad supervisors, workload and outdated technology.

Most enjoyable aspects of work:

  • 29 percent of respondents cite being part of building or creating something with their hands.
  • 25 percent cite contributing to the mission of the company.

Opportunity ahead

Information is the first step to understanding – and Epicor’s aim in this annual survey is to help leaders better understand frontline workers’ morale, challenges and aspirations so leaders can spur growth and create a thriving manufacturing workforce of the future.

Even with the dichotomies, I see so much opportunity ahead in this year’s findings for the manufacturing industry and its workers.

Technology can transform the business and the worker experience alike. The survey results indicate an increasing number of workers agree technology is the future. Even better, the more they use technology in their jobs, the more comfortable they are. Many see it less as a replacement threat, and more as a powerful assistant that can help them in myriad ways.

Consider the example of 3-D printing, which can increase the speed of production, minimize errors in final products and reduce costs. The same can be said of robotics, which also can shoulder some of the more repetitive and dangerous activities on the shop floor.

Survey respondents also cite the increasing use of Big Data and AI. Freeing up data from organizational silos is the foundation for greater organizational visibility, AI-generated insights and cross-company collaboration. AI also is being used to accelerate training on the factory floor, optimize machine maintenance and manage inventory.

These are extremely positive trendlines as the industry transitions to a future increasingly about delivering contextual intelligence through an ecosystem of industry-focused platforms, cloud technologies, and people-centric AI capabilities that enable real-time decision-making and automation to optimize key business flows. Epicor calls this “Cognitive ERP.”

Epicor’s “Voice of the Essential Manufacturing Worker” survey reveals that 83 percent of respondents who had the opportunity to use new tools or technologies say they worked more efficiently as a result

Not only is all of this good for the business, it’s great for workers who can enjoy a safer, more productive work environment that affords them more time and opportunity to ensure great quality, develop new skills and take on more rewarding work.

But technology is no panacea – purpose, pay, growth and leadership still matter. Many respondents made it clear that purpose matters. They love building things with their hands. Contributing to the mission of the company is an important part of job satisfaction – as are co-workers, the chance to progress in one’s career and great supervisors.

Investing in the future

It’s critical that management not lose sight of these motivators. The gains that come from efficiencies, higher productivity and lower costs can’t all go to the bottom line. In a manufacturing future of severe labor shortages – where highly-skilled workers and advanced technologies will co-exist – it only makes good business sense to invest in those workers along with new technology.

And those investments should manifest in more than better pay, flexible work and upskilling. Leaders should consider, for example, leveraging cost savings to maintain investments in the highest quality raw materials so customers are satisfied but, importantly, workers continue to feel good about the products they make. The same applies to investments in sustainable manufacturing, which more than half of respondents highlight as a priority.

Despite all the change underway, the manufacturers of the future will continue to compete for raw materials, for customers and for workers. And a highly motivated worker – someone who loves their work, is driven by purpose and the company mission, sees a career path and feels connected to co-workers and management – may very well be the most valuable asset of all. Let’s invest in them – and in the process, create a far, far better future for the industry and its essential workers.

Epicor

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