The New-Collar Workforce in Industry 4.0

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New-Collar Workforce is a quarterly column that discusses Industry 4.0, the skills gap, and workforce education.


In the U.S., as the concept of the smart factory becomes a reality, blue-collar jobs have been transitioning to digital, “new-collar” jobs and changing manufacturing.

A key plank in President Donald Trump’s campaign platform called for bringing manufacturing back, both by reshoring production to the U.S. and through investments in manufacturing. It struck a chord with factory workers across the country, and after the election victory, IBM CEO Ginni Rometty published an open letter to the president-elect essentially saying: We are delighted with your emphasis on manufacturing, but we need to look forward and want to see more new-collar jobs1.

Recent research from the National Association of Manufacturers projects a shortage of 3 million workers by 2025. The New-Collar Workforce in Industry 4.0

Recent research from the National Association of Manufacturers projects a shortage of 3 million workers by 2025. The New-Collar Workforce in Industry 4.0

With the adoption of advanced technologies on the factory floor — many seemingly lifted from the pages of science fiction — blue-collar jobs have become digital, new-collar jobs. The basis of the fabrication process may be the same, but today’s industrial machines now need a more sophisticated operator or service technician who can also interface with robotics, gather data from sensors, revise CAD files, and perform ever changing tasks that have not yet been invented.

Industry 4.0 is not simply a collection of new tools but an integrated system of hardware, software, and data where real-time feedback creates a continuous improvement loop to reduce downtime, improve quality, and communicate throughout the supply train. The modern manufacturing plant is a smart factory, and companies such as GE, Trumpf, and Siemens have already built true Industry 4.0 facilities that utilize multiple digital technologies, in concert, to drive performance.

Skills gap

The talk of the skills gap in manufacturing is based upon data gathered by the U.S. Department of Labor and released in 2012. The data predicted a shortfall of 2 million skilled manufacturing workers by the year 20202. Recent research from the National Association of Manufacturers projects a shortage of about 3 million workers3 by 2025, and 77 percent of their members who responded to a 2018 second-quarter survey on primary business challenges listed “a quality workforce” as their most pressing concern4.

Myriad factors have contributed to this manufacturing skills gap, including: factory floor changes in response to the exponential pace of technological innovation, requiring workers to keep pace; an emphasis during the past few decades on four-year degrees; trade schools and community colleges educating fewer manufacturing workers; and parents, students, and high school guidance counselors holding on to faulty perceptions of factory work as the dirty, dangerous work of the past.

Collaborating with robots

A pervasive fear in today’s job market is loss of jobs to automation. Robots are safer, increasingly cost-effective, highly reliable, and, when incorporated with artificial intelligence, they have an almost human-level capability to learn new tasks. That said, at the moment (and in the near future), humans are still needed to design, program, monitor, and, yes, repair robotic tools. A few companies are already placing robots in “cobot” roles, in which the robots operate as collaborators with human worker counterparts. In such capacity, robots perform the mundane, repetitive tasks, freeing humans to perform those that require higher cognitive functioning, such as making informed management decisions.

Additive manufacturing (AM), or 3D printing, holds perhaps the most promise to transform the world’s materials and physical objects. With it comes a new approach to how objects are manufactured, as well as a new design mentality that specifically takes into account the evolving capabilities of AM. Currently, most engineers, operators, and technicians graduated from college or gained certifications before AM was invented.

Compounding the lack of training among engineers and technicians is the fact that companies tend to overestimate ease of use of machines and they give 3D printer responsibility to a usually already overworked IT or engineering department that often does not have time to troubleshoot a brand-new-to-them technology. I’m often asked, “Can you help us find a better 3D printer?” My answer is, “You need help finding an operator with the experience, time, and desire to tinker with your current machine.”

Analyzing data

The interconnectivity of the smart factory allows sensors to collect and feed real-time data up and down the supply chain. Hospitals are now data collection centers, and our cars know more about our driving habits than we want to admit.

The 2016 Global Manufacturing Competitiveness Index, produced by Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Ltd. and the U.S. Council on Competitiveness, found that both American and Chinese executives cited predictive analytics as the primary key to global competitiveness5.

While machines collect data, new jobs are being created to analyze all of the data that now inundates managers. In manufacturing, a traditionally conservative industry where production downtime is costly, predicting events from historical data saves time and money, which goes right to the bottom line. New-collar jobs that help companies determine how to make informed decisions through advanced analysis of big data are becoming critical to many industries.

Tomorrow’s jobs will utilize not-yet-invented innovations to create products and perform services that today we can-not yet conceive. In my research with 200 manufacturers, 95 percent of respon­ders cited “problem-solving skills” as the most important trait for operators and technicians. With workplaces evolving at such an astronomical pace, training employees in critical thinking for problem-solving greatly expands opportunities for job security and future employment.

The future of work

The way we think about work is shifting. So, too, is the way we think about education — including the rise of digital badges, P-TECH (Pathways in Technology) early-college high schools, and fab labs. My next Industry 4.0 column in April will look at disruptive training and the ways secondary and higher education are adapting to student and employer needs. If you’d like to participate in the conversation, feel free to contact me with lessons you’ve learned or examples of emerging, successful, or collaborative training techniques.

Meet the author

Sarah Boisvert founded Fab Lab Hub after 20 years in manufacturing as the cofounder of Potomac Photonics. She provides nationwide training in manufacturing skills and is the author of The New Collar Workforce, email [email protected].


1. B. Darrow (2016). IBM CEO Makes Case for ‘New Collar’ Jobs in Open Letter to Donald Trump,

2. A Report by the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (2012). Engage to Excel: Producing One Million Additional College Graduates with Degrees in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, https://obamawhitehouse

3. National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) presentation at Manufacturing Day Summit, Greensboro, N.C. (Oct. 4, 2018),

4. Ibid.,

5. Deloite Touche Tohmatsu Ltd. (2016). Analysis: 2016 Global Manufacturing Competitiveness Index,

Published: November 2018
additive manufacturing
Additive manufacturing (AM), also known as 3D printing, is a manufacturing process that involves creating three-dimensional objects by adding material layer by layer. This is in contrast to traditional manufacturing methods, which often involve subtracting or forming materials to achieve the desired shape. In additive manufacturing, a digital model of the object is created using computer-aided design (CAD) software, and this digital model is then sliced into thin cross-sectional layers. The...
workforcemanufacturingjobsnew collar workforcesmart factoryIndustry 4.0robotsadditive manufacturingAMcobotsNew-Collar Workforce

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