You’ve read it before. The future of work is vastly different than the past. And the skills required to perform the jobs of the future are night-and-day when compared to the skills of many workers. For many companies and employees, that future is today.
A recent story on NPR highlighted this dramatic shift in job skills and did one of the best jobs at describing the differences.
The subject of the story was Standard Motor Products, a three-generation family business that makes replacement parts for car engines. A few decades ago, a lot of his workers had no high school degree. Some couldn’t read. But they were paid well and many enjoyed a comfortable living wage, maybe even middle class lifestyle.
That was then. This is now. In today’s factory, workers don’t just have to know how to read. They need advanced technical skills, including critical thinking skills.
The article (and podcast) describes the perfect model of the new factory worker. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of metals and microscopes, gauges and plugs. He works on the team that makes parts or assembles machines that which require precision engineering. In the past, the worker only needed to know how to use a hammer and screwdriver. Today, manufacturing is becoming a high-tech, high-precision business. Today’s it’s all about finesses. The article even suggests that “mow it’s all finesse” could be the motto of American manufacturing today.
Manufacturing has advanced so much that even a college degree and some computer skills isn’t enough to get hired. Knowledge of the machine’s computer language is a basic requirement. Learning the language just takes time but what about the ability to picture dozens of moving parts in your head. How many workers have that ability? And if they don’t how would you ever train it?
For employers like Standard Motor Products, they can’t afford to take a chance on workers who don’t have the skill. 90-day probation periods just don’t cut it anymore in a skilled, lean workplace. One mistake can be catastrophic, when the business is not dealing with feet and inches but microns. One micron is four-hundred-thousandths of an inch. A human hair, for example, is 70 microns thick. At Standard, they cannot be off by one-tenth the thickness of a hair.
“A 7- or 8-micron wrong adjustment in this machine cost us a $25,000 workhead spindle,” one Standard employee said. “Two seconds, we could lose $25,000.”
Standard still employees lesser skilled workers, but their days are numbered. These workers have a high school diploma, but no further education. They work on a simple machine that seals the cap of a fuel injector onto the body. All she does is insert two parts and push a button. It requires no discretion, no judgment. There’s only one way to run it: the right way. Unfortunately it won’t be long until the simple job is automated or outsourced too. When? As soon as the cost of her wages and benefits – or mistakes – exceeds the cost of purchasing and implementing robotics. Of course, a drop in the cost of robotics could also doom the low-skill worker. Talk about being caught between the rock and the hard place!
The solution is more training and education. But “the gap between the skilled and the unskilled is so vast that often the only way to make the leap is by leaving work and getting some education. And that’s just not financially feasible for a lot of Americans.”