SACA - Do Your Students Have the Skills They Need to Succeed in the Workplace of Today and Tomorrow

How do you shop today? Today’s consumers probably don’t give it much thought, but the ways in which we learn about, shop for, purchase, and ultimately receive the products we want and need has undergone a seismic shift in the last few decades.

Once upon a time, people might have learned about a product by seeing it on a store shelf or in a paper catalog. Today, catalogs tend to be hard to find and many people accomplish most of their shopping without ever entering a brick-and-mortar store.

Instead, the Internet offers instant gratification at your fingertips. A quick search, a few clicks or taps, and all sorts of things you never knew you needed will appear on your doorstep in just a day or two. In fact, the rise of e-commerce has shifted the landscape of the modern workplace, replacing retail jobs with new opportunities in warehouses and fulfillment centers.

These modern jobs continue to evolve as employers grapple with a shortage of skilled workers and the implementation of advanced automation technologies. Today’s instructors responsible for preparing the next generation of workers must take a hard look at whether or not their students have the skills they need to succeed in the workplace of today and tomorrow.

In this article, we will take a closer look at the opportunities available in the modern e-commerce workplace, the effect of advanced automation technologies, the skills future workers will need, and how the Smart Automation Certification Alliance (SACA) can help instructors ensure they’re setting up their students for success.

The Future of Work is Here

Today’s students will find that the modern world of e-commerce offers a wealth of opportunities, mostly with companies that have become household names. While working in a warehouse or fulfillment center might not sound like it’s on the cutting edge, many students will be surprised to learn what exciting career paths these places offer.

If you think about it, a lot has to happen for you to pick up your phone, order a product via an app, and have that product delivered to your home in a matter of only a day or two. The logistics underlying the modern supply chain are both impressive and challenging.

In an Industry Today article, author Carl Schweihs puts it this way:

“It’s no secret that technology is changing the way warehouses work. From robots and cobots that can do repetitive work to artificial intelligence, machine learning, and internet-connected devices that improve the ability to produce products, track productivity and identify maintenance needs, automation is no longer the future – it is the present. More warehouse leaders look to integrate technology into their operations each day. A 2021 survey of manufacturers by industrial staffing firms Staff Management | SMX and SIMOS Solutions showed that more than half were looking to automate parts of the facility in the next five years, with one-quarter planning to implement new technology as soon as possible.”

With continuing problems finding enough skilled workers to fill all of the open positions, it’s no wonder that companies are looking to advanced automation technologies to keep up with the pace of progress. Some people believe this means robots will take all the jobs in the future, but experts disagree.

Robots: It’s Not Us vs. Them

When you hear about companies implementing advanced automation technologies, it can be easy to jump to the conclusion that human workers are losing their jobs and being replaced by machines. However, according to Schweihs, “[t]he idea that robots will ultimately end up replacing people is a false dichotomy that simply isn’t backed up by data.”

In fact, Schweihs believes that “[t]he future of warehouse work won’t be people versus machines, but people and machines.” As advanced automation technologies take over repetitive, dangerous work, human workers will be tasked with more complex tasks that will ultimately provide greater job satisfaction.

In his article, he notes that “adding technology shouldn’t mean removing jobs. Instead of focusing on what robots can do, companies need to think about what their people can do – and how they can make the most impact by working with new technologies.”

What we will see as companies implement these new technologies is a shift in the types of jobs humans will do, as well as the skills they will need to do those jobs. Schweihs notes:

“In the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs 2020 report, 43% of businesses surveyed planned to move toward technology that will replace jobs, but the report showed that those moves could create up to 97 million new roles…Technology will be essential, but so will people. The only difference is that they will no longer be doing only step-by-step work to move a product from one end of the warehouse to another.”

Future Workers Need Different Skills

The workplace of the future – and in many cases, the present – will require workers with different skills than they’ve previously needed. Schweihs sees a future in which workers “will be skilled in both working with technology and in more intricate processes and functions.”

“From expertise in systems and processes to complex tasks, companies need people who can make decisions and perform work that technology can’t handle. And because no automated system can be online 100 percent of the time, actual humans will be there to pick up the slack,” insists Schweihs.

Schweihs believes “the jobs of the future will continue to evolve into more complex work that will improve both output and productivity. Future warehouse jobs will be a mix of complex tasks assisted by technology, existing roles supplemented by technology, and new jobs that will help with output and production.” One thing is clear: in the warehouses and fulfillment centers of the present and future, connected systems skills will be more important than ever.

Unfortunately, many instructors feel overwhelmed with the prospect of preparing their students with these new skills their students will need to succeed in the future workplace. What skills should they teach, and how will their students prove to prospective employers that they possess the skills that will let them hit the ground running? The answer to these questions can be found in the smart automation certifications offered by the Smart Automation Certification Alliance.

SACA Certifications Outline Clear Pathways for Student Success

As Schweihs notes in his article, “[t]he jobs of the future are coming, but it pays to get started now…The warehouse of the future is not simply a dark cavern full of machines. It will be a lively place with workers using the knowledge and skills they learn…to ensure that any technology added to the workflow is working well and serving everyone’s needs.”

The Smart Automation Certification Alliance sits at the forefront of the effort to certify students who demonstrate the required knowledge and hands-on smart automation skills employers so desperately need. SACA provides a wide variety of certifications that ensure future workers have the connected systems skills employers require.

To learn more about advanced automation certifications and how SACA can help educational institutions begin the task of bridging the Industry 4.0 skills gap, instructors should contact SACA for more information. The process begins by forging partnerships with local industries to determine the types of jobs they need to fill and what skills those roles require.

With a solid industry-education partnership forming the foundation of your effort to create new career pathways for your students, you can then choose the right credentials to validate the skills employers are seeking. Fortunately, you don’t have to recreate the wheel.

SACA offers many credentials to facilitate career pathways to successful new careers for students. For example, here are just a few of the subject matter areas in which SACA offers credentials: electrical, motor control, programmable controllers, mechanical, pneumatics, hydraulics, automation, Industry 4.0 technologies, robotics, electronic sensors, smart factory operations, process control, Ethernet communications, networking, data analytics, and predictive maintenance.

It’s no secret that industries of all kinds are battling a serious supply and demand issue. Due to advancing technology and increasing use of automation, employers need more highly-skilled workers than ever before.

Unfortunately, the supply of workers with the advanced technical and technological skills employers need isn’t keeping pace. This well-known problem is known as the “skills gap.” It’s been a problem for a while now, and experts believe it will only get worse in the near future.

What employers need are workers with advanced “connected systems” skills that will help them operate, maintain, troubleshoot, and repair the automation equipment becoming commonplace in facilities that have adopted new Industry 4.0 technologies.

To date, however, industry and educators alike have been missing the key to solve this skills gap: a set of industry-defined and industry-validated standards that clearly define the skills workers will need to succeed in the jobs of the present and future.

Providing that missing link was the guiding vision behind the creation of the Smart Automation Certification Alliance (SACA). In a recent webinar (“SACA Webinar”) hosted by Matt Kirchner, President of Lab Midwest, representatives of several major manufacturers spoke about their role in the development of SACA’s Industry 4.0 skill standards, as well as how those standards are now guiding their training and education efforts.

SACA’s Vision for Industry 4.0 Certifications

Why are SACA’s Industry 4.0 certifications so valuable? They speak to the in-demand skills that employers across the country — and across the globe — need so desperately.

Not only do the nation’s educational institutions need to build a pipeline of skilled talent to supply employers with the highly-skilled workers they need now and in the future, but incumbent workers also need training to learn the new skills they need to work with the advanced Industry 4.0 automation systems taking over modern manufacturing facilities.

But what are those skills? That’s the key question, and answering that question is what brought SACA into existence. According to SACA’s Executive Director, Jim Wall:

“SACA’s vision from the beginning was to develop a system that’s based upon industry-developed, industry-validated standards that truly define the competencies, performance indicators, and knowledge indicators that are required of individuals to succeed in the world of Industry 4.0.”

To turn that vision into reality, SACA relied upon a wide variety of companies, educational institutions, and organizations to develop, review, and test SACA certification standards. Experts from well-known industry leaders, such as Rockwell Automation, FANUC, Ashley Furniture, Kohler, Foxconn, Boeing, and Hershey, were instrumental in making sure SACA’s Industry 4.0 certifications reflect the competencies that industry needs.

Industry 4.0 is Here to Stay

Several of the industry representatives who shared stories during the SACA Webinar spoke about the changes that Industry 4.0 technologies have wrought and how their companies have been forced to respond.

Al Doty, Advanced Manufacturing Chief Engineer for Harley-Davidson, Inc., revealed that automation has been key to his company maintaining a competitive edge. Not only do new technologies improve efficiency and reduce costs, but Doty noted that employees also expect the company to adopt and use the best technologies available, so that they can perform their jobs more effectively and maintain a positive work-life balance.

Specific new technologies being adopted include advanced robotics and digital twins, according to Scott Theune, President of Plexus. Digital twins are realtime digital counterparts that allow workers to troubleshoot equipment virtually.

In addition to improving efficiency, these new technologies also play a critical role in making manufacturing facilities safer. Improved safety has been a big benefit as industry growth and the skills gap has spurred the need for more automation, noted Andrew Martin, Senior Director of Manufacturing for Generac.

Leaders throughout industry agree: Industry 4.0 is here to stay. According to Michael DeBroux, Senior Mechanical & Automation Engineer and Engineering Supervisor of Greenheck Fan Corporation, “We need to make sure that we are getting personnel and new talent into our company that speaks modern manufacturing languages and is familiar with Industry 4.0 fundamentals.”

OT and IT are Converging in Industry 4.0

According to an i-SCOOP article, “It’s impossible to talk about the evolutions in manufacturing, industrial transformation and Industry 4.0, innovations in areas such as Industrial IoT without mentioning the convergence of IT and OT.”

Historically, operational technology (OT) has referred to “a category of computing and communication systems to manage, monitor and control industrial operations with a focus on the physical devices and processes they use.”

Information technology (IT), on the other hand, “is about business and enterprise systems that store, process and deliver information.” Because Industry 4.0 technologies are becoming more and more commonplace throughout traditional OT equipment, cybersecurity becomes more critical every year.

According to Jim Molter, IT Manager – Smart Factory Deployment of Kohler Co., “Industry 4.0 is forcing us to break down those silos and start to learn to work together…that’s where we’re headed. There’s not going to be a distinction [between OT and IT] anymore.”

Educational Institutions Play a Key Role in Preparing Industry 4.0 Workers

When experts evaluate strategies for bridging the skills gap, it’s clear that educational institutions must play a key role in preparing students for Industry 4.0 careers. But can they do it alone?

The answer is no. Educational institutions must partner with industry counterparts to ensure that the knowledge and skills they’re teaching will produce students with the valuable skills that industries around the country need.

Anne Troka, Community Engagement Manager for Sargento Foods Incorporated, explains a successful approach she helped to develop called Manufacturing 4.0:

“We started conversations with…four schools and four businesses [to] build a partnership to help students — our future workforce — connect with our businesses to really get skills that we need and skills that the students will need…to make them employable in a variety of different careers, because Manufacturing 4.0 is in manufacturing as well as many other industries.”

To date, the partnership has helped to design and build five courses to prepare students for Industry 4.0 careers, including subject areas like mechatronics, industrial controls, robotics, and the Internet of Things. Eventually, students will also be able to earn SACA certifications related to their coursework. In this way, “we’re really connecting education to [career] success,” concludes Troka.

Industry 4.0 Also Requires Upskilling Current Employees

Unfortunately, employers can’t wait for the next generation of highly-skilled workers to emerge from high school or college. As Anthony Ebio, Director of Industry 4.0 Learning for Ashley Furniture Industries, Inc., noted, schools simply aren’t “cranking out the learning and the students fast enough.”

That’s why Ashley Furniture has invested heavily in upskilling its current employees so that they have the advanced skills they need to work with new Industry 4.0 technologies. Ebio noted that they used SACA certifications as a guide when setting up training for incumbent workers: “We found ourselves leveraging a lot of the SACA structure to make sure that we have [curriculum] to support Industry 4.0.”

Other companies are following suit. Ken Evans, Associate Maintenance Manager for S.C. Johnson & Son, Inc., noted that S.C. Johnson has partnered with Gateway Technical College to upskill its employees with an eye toward achieving SACA certifications.

So far both young and older employees have been excited about the prospect of learning and gaining new skills. Plus, using SACA certifications as a guide has allowed current employees to see a payoff for their hard work quickly. According to Evans, “under SACA, [current employees] can get incremental steps of recognition and be proud of it, and we’re proud of them.”

SACA Brings It All Together

If the current skills gap plaguing industries across the world is to be bridged, strategic partnerships between industry and educational institutions must be forged. Schools must begin to produce a pipeline of highly-skilled workers ready to work in an Industry 4.0 environment.

Likewise, industry must upskill its current workforce with the advanced skills needed to operate, maintain, troubleshoot, and repair the Industry 4.0 automation technologies taking over the factory floor.

According to Michael Cook, Director of Global Academic Partnerships for Platinum SACA Sponsor Rockwell Automation, Inc., “no one company can really do this alone…SACA is providing significant leadership here…ensuring that there’s a close fidelity between the academic space as well as what we find relevant in industry. That alignment is a significant part of what SACA brings.”

To learn more about Industry 4.0 certifications and how SACA can help both educational institutions and industry employers begin the task of bridging the Industry 4.0 skills gap, visit the SACA website and then contact SACA for more information.