Polytechnics CEO, Nobina Robinson Featured in Prairie Manufacturer Magazine

The robots aren’t coming — they’re here.

Your next hire?

Technology is transforming more than your products and processes — it’s changing your workforce

By Jennifer Findlay
 

The robots aren’t coming — they’re here.

And with them, they are bringing big questions for Prairie manufacturers: What will Industry 4.0 need in an employee? What happens to the jobs of today in a world dominated by artificial intelligence and automation? What skill sets will grow in demand over the next decade as companies race to harness a new era of global opportunity?

Estimates suggest more than 40 per cent of the tasks currently performed by humans can already be automated. In the past, robots were used to replace highly repetitive manual tasks, such as packaging or welding on large-volume production lines. Now, using advanced sensors and computer algorithms, automation is moving higher up the value chain, performing exceedingly complex cognitive functions in real time. In 2014, Hong Kong-based venture capital firm Deep Knowledge even appointed a robot named Vital to its board of directors — becoming the first business in the world to do so.

These shifts have captured the attention of the World Economic Forum (WEF). Published just this past March, the WEF released a white paper that outlined five technologies considered disruptive, and which loosely form the umbrella concept of automation: The ‘internet of things,’ artificial intelligence, advanced robotics, enterprise ‘wearables’ (including augmented and virtual reality), and 3D printing.

The report also framed three fundamental questions for consideration: What are the specific tasks, skills, and job families in future production systems? What are the curricula, labour, and training policies that government and companies need to collaborate on to develop the new workforce? And, what policies need to be put in place to support disruptions within the current workforce?

According to Jayson Myers, the former CEO of Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters and one of the country’s foremost authorities on industrial change, these questions are nothing new.

“We have been asking these same questions for 35 years,” says Myers, who now runs a strategic consulting practice. “Technology, however, is changing products, processes, and businesses faster today than ever before. Understanding how to implement those technologies and develop new business models to operate successfully — that’s a vastly different kettle of fish than in the past.”

Managing these changes, he adds, will require workers with a combination of technological skills and — perhaps more importantly — soft skills, including multi-tasking, critical thinking, project management, and communication.

Similarly, WEF highlights collaborative production, decision-making, predictive and remote maintenance, simulation, and workload optimization as the management ‘musts’ of the future.

Myers agrees, maintaining that success will start with the ability to see the big picture.

“The most urgent skill is strategic thinking from the management level,” he says. “The same is true for new hires on the factory floor. Workers won’t be able to focus on one small piece of the process anymore — they will need to think about the wider system.”

Automation is continuing to leave its mark on the manufacturing labour pool. South of the border, approximately 6.5 million jobs — equivalent to one-third of the workforce — have been lost over the past two decades. In Canada, meanwhile, the projection is around 700,000 lost jobs, or one-quarter of the manufacturing workforce.

But that does not necessarily mean the robots have been kicking blue-collar workers to the curb. A surge in baby boomer retirements has forced many companies to turn to automation to bridge a continent-wide skilled talent shortage. As a result, the demand for technologists, analysts, and engineers, who can support and enhance automated environments, has boomed.

“Losing long-time employees is expensive for manufacturers, yet it also provides the groundwork for generational change,” explains Myers. “As managers retire, new managers come in looking at automation and understanding it much better than the old guard. Because it is so difficult to find good people, one way of competing is by automating.”

Norseman Structures is one of those companies vying to sharpen its competitive edge. 

Located in Saskatoon, Norseman manufactures fabric-covered buildings for North American and international markets, from carports and quonsets to large, custom commercial products. Their diverse team constructs the buildings as well, routinely encompassing mechanical and electrical installation and the pouring of concrete foundations.

“We need people with expanded skill sets, who are able to perform a multitude of work paths,” exclaims Chief Operating Officer Kevin Dow. “We need flexibility — people to deliver critical thinking, who can make decisions on their feet, and who can manage more sophisticated, computer-controlled equipment, be it lasers or robots.”

While Dow is bullish on Norseman’s plans for increased automation, he recognizes it is often a ‘chicken or egg’ conundrum, especially for small- to mid-sized manufacturers. Stiffening economic pressures are putting heat on companies to invest in process efficiencies, although justifying the capital expense means first strengthening customer bases in a climate of swelling competition.

Then there is the question of whether it is the right tool for the right problem.

“Manufacturing in Canada is significantly under-capitalized as far as automation is concerned,” says Dow. “There are certainly challenges in terms of the types of manufacturing we do in Western Canada, compared to the automotive industry or some of the other higher-volume manufacturing sectors. Many companies here are more focused on fulfilling smaller-volume, specialized market niches.”

Meeting the demand

If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

Or, in the case of manufacturing: If the demand exists but no one is trained to meet it, can we still call it a job?

Producing workers with the right mix of technical competency and soft skills preparedness to lead the digital economy is the challenge of the 21st century for Canada’s education system.

Primary and secondary schools are racing to add courses in coding, robotics, and design technologies, while post-secondary institutions are aligning more closely with employers to redefine the applied learning experience.

For Nobina Robinson, the president and CEO of Polytechnics Canada, it all starts with understanding the need.

“Up to now, we’ve been fairly narrow in our understanding of the kind of talent we need, limiting development to the drive for more university graduates,” says Robinson, noting that recognition of competencies needs to supersede merely credentials. “Both the technical and human cognitive skills will grow in demand, but in different ways applied to [evolving] technologies.”

Tracey Scarlett, dean at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology (NAIT) School of Business, a Polytechnics Canada member, shares Robinson’s thirst for better data.

“The biggest challenge we have as learning institutions is getting demand-side data,” imparts Scarlett. “How many coders do we really need? How many people will need to service electric vehicles? We haven’t invested enough in labour market forecasting. Statistics Canada hasn’t updated its occupational codes, and the federal government is not modernizing its labour market information systems.”

One of the most effective mechanisms for institutions to gather input is through program advisory committees. These groups, comprised of representatives from industry, help schools anticipate trends, develop or refine curricula, and remain relevant to employers.

They have proven invaluable to NAIT in its efforts to equip manufacturers with the best and brightest. The launch of its ‘trade-to-degree’ program, whereby tradespeople can obtain a bachelor of business administration degree, is a prime example of feedback in action.

“Many programs now train people to be strong technically, but it’s the overlay of technical knowledge along with the technical data that is really going to set apart the students who are going to have strong career paths,” says Scarlett. “Students need to think about how to become involved in data analytics, supply management, logistics, just-in-time, automation — all of the things that are becoming front-and-centre. It’s no longer going to be what we think of as ‘traditional’ manufacturing.”

Indeed, times are a-changing; and workers will be forced to adapt at a pace equal to or greater than those training them.

Fortunately, Canadians have demonstrated their flexibility.

During the oil boom, workers moved in droves to the Wild Rose Province, and then back home or on to other jurisdictions when commodity prices softened. And in the thralls of the 2008-09 financial crisis, a record number of adults returned to school to ‘upskill’ or retrain altogether.

It’s a familiar conversation. People have been concerned about changing technology since the time of Aristotle. Few who witnessed the birth of the Industrial Revolution could imagine most of the jobs available today. The tricky part is to not succumb to hype or overestimate the impact of inevitable change.

“Manufacturing will not disappear,” assures Robinson. “It will push into new areas and domains that offer manufacturers new markets and opportunities. But the new manufacturing jobs will not be the same ones lost during the Great Recession. There is no way back to the legions of manufacturing jobs that only required high school education.”

Back in Saskatoon, Dow believes the onus is now on manufacturers themselves.

“It is incumbent on all companies like mine to invest in our people,” he says. “People will always be the key.”