Bill Currence, president and managing partner of Cornerstone Consulting Organization, tells of the difficulties that manufacturers are experiencing in attracting workers in the midst of the pandemic, and what the employment picture will look like when it’s over.
Skilled workers were hard to find in 2019, when unemployment was at historic lows. But when the coronavirus pandemic hit, and millions were furloughed or thrown out of work, the task of finding adequate labor didn’t get any easier. Workers fearing exposure to the virus were reluctant to take jobs that took them out of their homes. Prospective employers had to work hard to establish and enforce safety protocols and cleanliness standards. “So the recruiting process had to take a more advanced twist — to educate the worker that it was safe to go in,” says Currence.
Even when the vaccines arrived and the pandemic began to subside, there were still obstacles to employment in the form of severe weather in the South and Gulf, and a global shortage of containers to move components and manufactured goods.
One might expect automation to solve the problem of too few human workers on the plant floor. Indeed, says Currence, it can take over tasks involving redundant processes or endangering workers’ health. And slow population growth ensures that manufacturers will be looking to implement additional automation in the months and years ahead. But machines “are no substitute for human beings,” Currence says. Humans can make decisions and change tasks on the fly, an ability that robots have yet to acquire.
The end of the pandemic might well bring another wave of extremely low unemployment, extending the labor challenge for manufacturers well into the future. Employers must adjust to the expectations of a new generation of workers, Currence says.
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