More than any time in recent history, work life is in flux. Where we work, what we do, and who does it (human and non-human) are all up for grabs.

Amidst all this turmoil, one consensus has emerged. In order to thrive in the new work order, we need to embrace lifelong learning, as an activity and an ethos.

Lifelong learning holds that education isn’t limited to our formative years. Rather, the pace of change is so rapid and the quality of change so stark that individuals need to consistently reskill and upskill to keep pace with the market.

This need for continuous education isn’t future tense. At present, as much as 30% of software developers transition into work unrelated to their training by mid-career. The reason? Most often, it’s that the skills developers learned early in their career became obsolete. Languages have a shelf-life. Tools an expiration date.

This is also something I’ve seen firsthand in my own career. Before I joined Tulip, I watched a generation of newly-minted PhDs leave academia not for lack of qualifications and not for lack of trying. There simply weren’t any jobs left.

In this way, software development and academia are useful for understanding why lifelong learning is necessary. To put it simply, if your skills don’t become irrelevant, your job might.

Lifelong learning in manufacturing

Okay, so what does this have to do with manufacturing?

The answer is that, more than any other industry, manufacturing needs to embrace a fluid approach to education and skills development.

I’ve written about the skills gap—the imbalance between the skills manufacturers need and their availability in the labor market—in manufacturing before. As have many others. A confluence of mass retirements, a poor image, and fast-evolving ways of work have made it difficult for manufacturers to hire. Sure, many of the open positions are jobs where you might expect high turnover. But just as often they’re positions that call for expertise with the bleeding edge of advanced manufacturing.

So, more than any other industry, manufacturing needs to help its workforce keep up with the pace of change.

This is where self-serve education comes in.

When I refer to self-serve education, I’m referring to online learning modules, open to everyone and available for free. The kind of education where you can pick up a new skill or learn a new software through hands-on experience, in courses taught by people who know what they’re doing. The beauty of such education is that you can build it into your job, or dip into it on nights and weekends. To date, this kind of learning has been kept behind paywalls or required admission to a degree program. Worse, it’s been offered as exorbitantly priced IP from tech vendors.

(Personal aside: from an ethical perspective, making this sort of educational material free just seems like the right thing to do. As in, What does it say about our culture if skills turnover is putting workers out of a job every 5-10 years while burdening them with the expense to keep current?)

Perhaps the best reasons for lifelong learning in manufacturing is that many of the jobs that exist in manufacturing right now didn’t exist a decade ago (Additive Manufacturing Specialist, for one). Much of what the class of 2021 does in manufacturing, they won’t have learned in their courses.

Why manufacturing needs self-serve education

This is all well and good. But so far, much of the argument in this article has been pretty abstract and high level. To bring it home, let’s go over some of the concrete ways that lifelong learning can benefit manufacturing.

The biggest untapped talent pool is already working in manufacturing

Many roles in manufacturing have high turnover. Often, when people stick around, they stick around, and they carry all of the operational secrets of the shop around in their head. In other words, so much knowledge in manufacturing is tacit knowledge—information and best practices held nowhere else but the minds of workers.

Self-serve learning in manufacturing can help marry this tacit knowledge with newly valuable skill sets. Rather than try to hire the right workers from outside the org, workers can build a plan with their employers to chart a new career trajectory and then work towards it with self-serve materials. This method is a collaborative, cost effective way for employers to steward the careers of the stalwart employees, and for workers to keep their skillset relevant in a new era.

Help new folks enter into the industry

Self-serve education can also help new workers break into manufacturing—something the industry desperately needs if those hundreds of thousands of open positions are ever to be filled.

Self-serve education opens up a new labor pool to manufacturing. With the emergence of the citizen developer, talented, process-oriented individuals can make an impact in manufacturing without following the traditional degree-to-factory path.

Again, this isn’t a hypothetical development. We see it often at Tulip. Some of the best users of Tulip–the folks we consider the process engineers of the future–don’t have a background in computer science or a degree in engineering. They’re systems thinkers who learned how to apply that framework to a new domain.

A Skilled Workforce is a Competitive Advantage

Behind the high-minded principles here, there are hard economics. Hiring is expensive. Perpetually unfilled positions and poor employee retention are more expensive. In 2020, manufacturers learned that a skilled workforce is a competitive advantage, with Gartner finding that “a flexible workforce is key to a manufacturer’s ability to remain resilient.”

“Just as physical assets depreciate, so do workforce skills and knowledge,” says Simon Jacobson, VP Analyst, Gartner. “Labor is the new constraint and needs attention. Manufacturers that continue to rely on tacit know-how and do not invest in knowledge management and transference will struggle with capacity utilization.”

So, ultimately, self-serve education as a vehicle for lifelong learning sits at the sweet spot where workers’ and employers’ interests intersect. It’s one crucial way that manufacturing can keep its edge as an industry.