Automation is Failing at Bringing in New Talent

Let’s Face It: We are Failing as an Industry

If you are one of the people who know me well, you know that automation & robotics have been my life.  I entered machinery design right out of college and have been in it for 28 years now.  I co-founded and grew a custom automation company and sold it a few years ago.  Automation is and always will be my passion.

You Can’t Say We Didn’t Try

But we collectively have failed our industry.

We all have seen the articles.  How automation does not destroy jobs but creates them.  How a 2 year degree in a vocational school (vs a 4 year degree) should not have a stigma attached to it.  Heck, many of us (myself included) have written articles and given speeches about this very subject.  We post infographics about how much you can make with a degree in CNC programming or welding.  We talk about how many welders will be leaving the workforce over the next number of years (10 years ago we were projecting 10 years ahead.  Now 10 years later we’re still projecting ahead.)  We encourage young people to consider manufacturing as a fun and growing industry.  We show them sexy robots and slick machines to entice them to enter our industry.  You can’t throw a rock on LinkedIn without seeing this message at least once a day.

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But the sad, harsh truth is we are failing

Over my career I have been involved with many schools (with both 2 and 4+ year programs).  Sitting in a large rooms with educators and manufacturing industry experts, over doughnuts and coffee, telling the schools what they need to be teaching, and doing, to attract students.  The academics and administrators take furious notes, ask lots of questions, thank us for our time and commitment and go off to presumably implement these changes.

And then the next year we are back at the same conference.  With the same educators.  Same bad coffee and same stale doughnuts telling them the same thing.  Nothing has progressed.  They still do not have the teachers they need, nor the money dedicated for the tools or machinery.  It’s like an educational version of the movie Groundhog’s Day.

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To give credit, there are some schools that are taking this to heart.  They have some incredible automation and industrial technology programs and they produce amazing students.  But in a vast number of situations, our ideas and suggestions are rarely implemented.  And we have data to back this up.

The Numbers Don’t Lie

Notice the 2 year full time and part time degree seekers dropping off from a high in 2010.  While I could not find graphical data through 2022, written articles confirm that this trend is not changing much.  It seems like the message we started spreading in 2008 got some traction but that traction did not last.  The bump in 2010-2012 was likely due to the ending of the 2008 recession.  People going back to school to get new skills so they wouldn’t be left jobless again in the future.

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Even 4 year programs are seeing sharp declines.  In part due to COVID but projections show that enrollment will continue to decline over the next several years.

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There is one bright side.  While overall college enrollment (2, 4 and post grad studies) is falling the percentage of women getting these educations are rising.  As a percent of their numbers (which are larger to begin with) more women are starting postsecondary educational programs than men, and this trend seems to be growing.

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So Where Did We Do Wrong?

We can all agree there was no lack of trying on the part of our industry.  We spent inordinate numbers of hours and dollars trying to get manufacturing to be sexy and a good paying career that many would choose.

While there were headwinds against us such as the change in the way younger generations want from work (remote, hybrid, gig work, internet based work etc.) we still should have made more progress than we have. 

Which means we need to change tactics. We cannot keep banging the same drum and expecting different outcomes. 

If I have to listen to yet another “influencer” give the same tired keynote on the skills gap and how 2 year trade schools are an alternative to college I’m ready to eat a bullet.. I’m sure the younger generation feels the same. It’s become boring again. 

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What’s Going to Be Our New Strategy?

To be honest I don’t know…I’ve been thinking about this for a while and I do have a few ideas but I wanted to write this article to challenge the industry to come up with a new message, a new tactic, a new way to get the next generation to see manufacturing and automation as a viable choice. 

Because while there are highlights here and there, the numbers show that we aren’t doing that on a mass scale. 

And we all know we need talent. This is a battle we cannot afford to lose. 

So what’s going to be our new tacit?  How do we get the next generation to adopt manufacturing to be a viable and lucrative career?  I have ideas.  But I want the community at large to consider this.  Post your new and novel ideas below and let’s “Bring Sexy (manufacturing) Back”  Apologies JT.

Sean Dotson, P.E

With 27 years experience in up and down markets I can help you navigate these next few years. Maybe your management needs someone to lean on. Maybe you need new management. Whatever the case, I am a firm believer that my experience as a successful integrator for 20 years will help you and your company to thrive in the years to come.

Contact me on LinkedIn or at for an introductory call.

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