Asian manufacturers go all-in on upskilling employees

As new technologies continue to change manufacturing, future jobs will look different. See how this is playing out in Asia, where upskilling employees is a collaborative effort.

Upskilling employees workers milling a full-sized foam prototype of a car chassis using a CNC machine Nichinan Group in Japan

Rina Diane Caballar

November 25, 2020

min read
  • Technologies like artificial intelligence (AI), automation, the Internet of Things (IoT), and robotics are revolutionizing manufacturing in Asia, leading to a shift in workforce skill requirements.

  • While repetitive tasks are being automated, workers will need to upskill to operate and maintain these technologies.

  • Upskilling strategies include internal training sessions, digital learning programs, and engaging small businesses specializing in technologies to train employees.

Many new technologies—additive manufacturing, artificial intelligence (AI), automation, the Internet of Things (IoT), and robotics—are transforming the future of manufacturing in Asia.

AI and robots can automate tasks such as quality assurance, defect detection, assembly-line optimization, and other routine or repetitive tasks. Robotic process-automation technology, for example, allows organizations to automate back-end business processes. While this shift affects many industry employees, it doesn’t mean that their jobs will disappear. Rather, the industry will adapt by upskilling employees.

“What this means for the jobs of the future is that workers whose tasks are largely repetitive are at risk of their jobs being automated or significantly reconfigured,” says Katherine Loh, an independent international-development consultant with expertise in Asia and the role of Industry 4.0 technologies in the future of work and private-sector development. “At the same time, these technologies will still require workers to understand, operate, maintain, and update them, so they will have to upskill and constantly seek training opportunities to stay on top of these trends.”

Upskilling employees 2 factory workers using industrial robotics
As manufacturers in Asia and the world over adopt advanced robotics, employees will need upskilling to operate, maintain, and update the machines.

Most businesses in the Asia-Pacific region consider upskilling as a driver of success; 84% say they prioritize skilling and reskilling of workers. However, 64% of business leaders haven’t yet implemented plans to help employees gain the necessary skills. Although upskilling is linked to company success, businesses seem unprepared to follow through.

Workers in Asia-Pacific also regard upskilling as vital; 86% of employees view career development to be essential to their future. Yet 69% of employees are concerned their organization does not provide the training opportunities they need to remain employable.

“The model of employee learning and training is evolving to reflect the accelerating replacement rate of skills,” Loh says. “Now and in the future, workers will likely be expected to take a lifelong or continuous-learning approach to gaining new skills throughout their careers.”

Strategies for upskilling employees

Upskilling employees worker in protective gear on pharmaceutical assembly line
Diverse manufacturing sectors, including food, energy, and pharmaceutical production (pictured), are all moving toward more automated assembly lines, which will require upskilling employees.

Upskilling is crucial to keep up with the changing world. But this endeavor must not fall only on the hands of workers. Companies also must invest in upskilling and reskilling their workforce to avoid disruption as innovation accelerates.

“Manufacturers across all sectors are integrating automation, AI, additive manufacturing, digitalization, and other technologies into their business processes to improve product quality, raise worker productivity, strengthen their supply chains, and ultimately remain competitive,” Loh says. “Employers will need a workforce trained to operate and understand these technologies. It will be incumbent upon them—in partnership with governments, labor unions, educational and training institutions, and others—to do the work of investing in workers.”

This investment may come from internal training sessions or digital learning programs, such as Autodesk’s free online courses and generative-design certification or MIT’s Fundamentals of Manufacturing Processes course and online certification for Additive Manufacturing for Innovative Design and Production.

Another strategy is to engage small businesses specializing in technologies such as 3D printing or cobots (collaborative robots) to train employees. “Manufacturing is essential to the economic health of Asia, and as the region adopts more technology, the demand for skills becomes more volatile,” says John Karr, senior director of The Asia Foundation’s technology programs team. “We need to build systems—like taking advantage of existing knowledge from entrepreneurs—that quickly address these skill gaps, shifting from routinized training to adaptive and responsive training.”

Some of these strategies are already in place across Asia. Here are a few organizations embracing upskilling and reskilling to equip their current workforce with the skills needed for future manufacturing in the region.

Training young engineers in Japan

Upskilling employees worker cleans up a 3D print of a small automotive part
The continued rise of additive manufacturing contributes greatly to the need for upskilling employees. Here, a man in the Kanagawa prefecture of Japan cleans up a 3D print of a small automotive part.

Japan is accelerating training for young engineers through organizations such as Kojima Industries Corporation, a car-parts manufacturing company and one of Toyota’s partner companies, and Technohama, a Kojima affiliate company specializing in injection and press molding and material measurement. Technohama’s basic training program focuses on flow analysis and mold fabrication; the company also trains young engineers through information sharing and technology-exchange meetings across the larger Kojima group. As a result, Technohama has raised its skill level in flow analysis and seeks to expand its reach to other companies.

“The monthly group studies at subcommittee meetings within the Kojima group have been helpful in training engineers,” says Atsushi Matsumoto, Kojima director and executive officer for production control at Technohama. “In these subcommittee meetings, younger engineers are actively learning simulations and significantly contributing to mold and product designs for actual products.”

These meetings also give engineers an opportunity to interact with the software and hardware vendors and distributors the company enlists to help with training. “It’s difficult to keep up with the speed of technology advancement if you try to do everything in-house,” Matsumoto says. “So it’s important to collaborate with other manufacturers, vendors, and start-up companies.”

For Asian manufacturers, investing in training opportunities for workers is as important as investing in new processes, equipment, and technologies. “Employers should proactively anticipate the changes on the horizon,” Loh says. “They should create a work environment and company culture that enables employee growth and allows workers to self-direct their education by giving them access to the right content in the right format, whether that’s digital-learning platforms, app-based learning, or learning on the job.”

A joint effort in China

China’s technical and vocational institutions play a major role in transitioning workers to the higher skill levels needed for modern manufacturing. Guizhou Equipment Manufacturing Vocational College, for example, has added new courses: Digital Design Technology, Digital Process Design, and Digital Manufacturing Technology for the increased dependence on digital applications; Multi-Axis Machining Technology for working with advanced machine tools; and Industrial Robot Programming, Industrial Robot Installation and Debugging, and Intelligent Production Line Installation and Debugging to help students adapt to automated processes.

Guizhou also offers retraining and skills-improvement training for different types of workers in varying career stages, including laid-off and unemployed persons, veterans, and migrants. “This type of training is in response to the country’s call to build a lifelong learning system for citizens and provide convenient and high-quality training for everyone,” says Lin Yang, associate professor and deputy director of the college’s mechanical engineering department.

China’s technical and vocational colleges are syncing up with industry needs. “China has established vocational colleges and schools for different fields in every province and city to provide talent for enterprises,” Yang says. “The knowledge and skills students learn in school are determined by enterprise needs.”

In Guangdong Province, for instance, the Guangdong Light Industry Technicians College formed industry partnerships for internships as well as soft skills and technical skills training. Guangzhou Industry and Trade Technicians College established a dual training system: The college and its partner companies work together to develop teaching and training plans. Yang’s college has done the same, forging relationships with Guizhou Aerospace Linquan Electric Co. Ltd. and Geely Automobile to co-construct majors and short-term training programs and mutually employ teachers and staff.

“Growing the education system in a way that produces more thought leaders, knowledge workers, and innovators has a lot to do with higher education,” Karr says. “But it also has a lot to do with making sure people in the Asian region are always able to upgrade their skills. And the central component to that is the education and training process.”

Collaboration is key

Upskilling employees worker in a Thai factory controls a welding robot
A man in a Thai factory controls a welding robot.

Upskilling must be viewed as a shared endeavor among sectors. In Singapore, for instance, the government’s SkillsFuture initiative provides skills development resources for students and workers at different stages of their careers. By working with education and training providers, employers, unions, and industry associations, the government helps citizens acquire the skills and knowledge needed to stay competitive.

“Business leaders should be willing to engage in dialog with policy makers to ensure they are informed of their training needs,” Loh says. “For example, leaders in the private sector can provide policy makers with access to novel and real-time sources of labor-market data on changing skills needs, which would allow policy makers to engage in sound planning and public investment. Both public- and private-sector leaders can work together with educators and training providers to ensure that training content reflects market needs and training formats are accessible to all kinds of learners. Collaboration is key. No one player holds all the levers to navigating to success.”

Rina Diane Caballar

About Rina Diane Caballar

Rina Diane Caballar is a New Zealand-based writer covering the intersections of science, technology, society, and the environment.

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