How Technology and Ingenuity are Helping Manufacturers Tackle the Evolving Workforce

Written by: Ruth Morss

Read Time: 5 min

Manufacturers need nerves of steel these days to deal with two major workforce developments.

  • Mind the gap

Where have all the workers gone? By 2030, up to 2.1 million manufacturing positions at every level may remain unfilled in the U.S. McKinsey & Company reports that average wages for workers in U.S. manufacturing or construction are up 20% since the first quarter of 2020, a reflection of how difficult such skilled talent is to find. Demand for these workers will balloon as the energy transition unfolds, real estate development increases, and the U.S. moves to update its infrastructure.

It’s no secret that demographics undergird the problem. As of 2022, a third of the manufacturing workforce was over 55. Today the Baby Boom generation edges toward retirement while worried industry executives study articles such as How to Attract Skilled Medical Device Manufacturing Workers in 2023.

  • Enter Generation Z

This cohort was born between 1997 and 2012; they’ve never known a world without the Internet, video calls, and flexible ways of collaborating, conversing, or working. They expect digital to be integral to their jobs and to make the work more efficient. That means companies will have to rethink how their employees accomplish their daily tasks – and where to find and attract these potential employees.

Manufacturers need to think of themselves as well. One expert researching manufacturing quality problems discovered that the number of blue-collar workers on the job for only a year meant that quality issues were almost a given.

Companies that succeed in the face of these two challenges are taking a strategic approach to technology, rethinking how work and recruiting are done, and applying innovative technologies to reduce pain points.

A strategic approach to technology

Today’s employees expect to be able to work together with the clarity and ease of workshopping a project in Google docs, and to get the information they need in seconds. Employers who offer workplace tools of this type will be able to stand out to top talent and digital natives.

For companies that design, manufacture, and service products, one of the most impactful digital transformation initiatives is to enable a digital thread. With digital thread, companies build a solid foundation with their product data, one of the most valuable assets a company has.

The digital thread makes product data available to the right person, at the right time, in the right context, to create value for the business. For employees, when a digital thread is in place, collaboration becomes a more natural process and those best placed to act can make faster, better decisions with information at their fingertips.

Without a digital thread, the opportunity costs can be substantial. One study showed that, in the case of design engineering alone, each engineer was losing up to seven hours every week trying to find, correct, and manage their data. The implications of this time waste were bad for business as well as for morale: miscommunication, decisions based on bad data, unexpected downtime, and production mistakes.


This connected worker gets the data he needs to do his job from his tablet. Whether on the factory floor or out in the field, these workers are connected to the information they need, where and when they need it.

Rethink how work and recruiting are done

Hybrid work is only the start of what can be done with a mindset change.

Managing and finding talent

One cheddar plant in Minnesota kept to its 24/7 production schedule and targets but gave employees the right to pick their shift lengths and start times. As of March 2024, Land O’Lakes was rolling out the program to other sites. They found that employees valued being able to adapt their work schedules to their lives, as opposed to being asked to choose among pre-set options. Employee churn decreased.

While this may not work everywhere, the takeaway is that companies that flexibility and human-focused work culture is an effective way to attract and retain skilled talent.

Other types of businesses have partnered with technical schools and colleges to hire and train talent for the specific needs of the marketplace. Boston’s Franklin Cummings Tech offers two-year degrees in fields such as CNC Machining, Automotive Technology, and HVAC&R Technology. Indiana’s Purdue University has established partnerships with semiconductor fabs. These agreements cover everything from student internships to new Purdue degree programs aimed at producing well-qualified staff for these facilities.


Ubiquitous in software development, Agile methodology is gaining traction with product developers partly because newer engineers are coming to the workforce with Agile techniques learned in school. For those unfamiliar, Agile prioritizes continuous, iterative development cycles with daily huddles, frequent stakeholder check-ins, and ‘sprints’ of focused work.

For global remote workforces, Agile is especially attractive. Self-direction is a key principle of Agile teams as is the continuous feedback loop. Agile teams manage their own workloads, reassign work based on need and ability, and participate in key decisions. In Agile, feedback continues throughout the project, as product owners continuously check in with customers to identify business needs and review progress at the end of each sprint.

Agile can be faster way to develop products when resources are tight. UK-based Ocado Technology adopted agile from the get-go as they developed mobile robots to automate grocery order picking and processing.

Apply innovative technologies

With the younger generation, technology is second nature to them. Finding effective ways to incorporate the latest advancements, from augmented reality (AR) to artificial Intelligence (AI), can be a recruiting differentiator (among other business benefits).

Many businesses are pursuing the idea of a connected worker. The connected worker doesn’t need to knock on office doors, dust off training manuals, or carry thick stacks of instructions when everything they need can be made available through hand-held or heads-up devices. It’s a less frustrating, safer, more efficient way to work, and a self-service model with which new entrants to the workforce are familiar.

One of the ways this vision is coming to life is with augmented reality. AR is a digital technology that superimposes visual and digital content onto the physical world to guide the individual performing a task. Imagine a technician asked to repair a complex medical device. Instead of chasing down help or trying to determine which instructions are the most up to date, she takes out her tablet, phone, or smart connected eyewear, looks at the machinery, and sees the correct repair procedure augmented on to the device.


With Vuforia Chalk, two people share the same screen to make frontline work more efficient. It uses devices employees have in their pockets or close by –phones and tablets.

Even better, AR devices and applications that record processes can be used to transfer knowledge on demand. This can be a game-changing resource to capture the knowledge of retiring skilled employees.

Change is here

Manufacturers tell us that as they begin this journey, they start to think differently about relationships within the factory as well as about information and how it’s shared and maintained with those who need it. It’s worth getting one’s digital house in order. Companies who succeed will keep top talent and build a source of competitive advantage for themselves—an excellent foundation for innovation.

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Tags: Product Lifecycle Management (PLM) Augmented Reality CAD Application Lifecycle Management (ALM) Digital Thread Digital Transformation

About the Author

Ruth Morss

Ruth Morss is a B2B content creator and freelance writer with a background in Art History. When not pining for Italy, Ruth writes about product development, CAD software, engineering and PTC Mathcad. In her free time, Ruth enjoys rowing crew, baking, and learning why and how engineers do what they do. A self-confessed jewelry fanatic, she believes in accessorizing.