By Doug Bartholomew

The fledgling economic recovery could bring a bonanza of jobs for technology professionals who also possess manufacturing skills. That's one conclusion of a new report from Boston-based AMR Research, Unleashing the Next-Generation Plant Workforce with Manufacturing 2.0.

As manufacturing plants are restarted and capacity raised, factories will need to be supported by a technologically savvy and highly skilled workforce. Driving the shift is a renewed emphasis on operating more efficiently and economically.

While the automotive industry continues to recover slowly, some manufacturers are beginning to show signs of renewed activity. For example, semiconductor manufacturers are enjoying increasing sales. In mid-October, Intel Corp. reported strong third-quarter results, powered by rising demand for chips to run laptops as well as for semiconductors used in new servers. Companies as diverse as Caterpillar, Intel, and Parker Hannifin, a maker of hydraulic parts, reported the worst of the recession is over and they expect sales to improve in the coming year.   

Slow Growth

The latest statistics point to the start of an upturn - yes, an upturn - in U.S. manufacturing activity. The Institute for Supply Management (ISM) reported that 13 of the 18 manufacturing industries it tracks experienced growth in September. What's more, the  Federal Reserve says industrial production jumped 1.2 percent in August and 1 percent in September.

On the other hand, the ISM's employment measure continued to contract, slipping 0.2 percent in September. In other words, the recent uptick in production has yet to result in renewed job growth.  

Still, as the economy picks up steam, the gradual gain in manufacturing is expected to foster a new demand for workers who couple technology and manufacturing experience. "There is a need emerging for people with a hybrid of skills, both manufacturing and manufacturing information technology," says Simon Jacobson, a research director and author of the report at AMR.

Training on an X-Box?

Jacobson goes so far as to suggest that young workers with video and online game experience may have an edge when it comes to hiring decisions. "Games could be the next way to get the next generation of workers involved," he says. "We may eventually see Microsoft X-Box-based training and certification for plant-floor workers."

Already, today's workers are being asked to use some of the newer Internet technologies. For example, instant messaging could be employed as a communications tool on the factory floor. "If an inspector discovers there is nonconformance on a line, he or she can use IM to chat with a colleague to make sure they're both looking at the right processes," Jacobson explains.

As a case in point he cites Nalco, a water treatment and services provider that's using a variety of collaboration software from Microsoft, including  PerformancePoint Services for SharePoint, SQL Server 2008 Analysis and Reporting Services, and Office Communications Server 2007. Using these systems, Nalco enables technicians across sites to obtain role-based access to data on chemical composition, temperature, and corrosion levels. These roles typify the new hybrid tech/manufacturing positions likely to be created. 

A key skill expected to be in demand is expertise with product design software for manufacturing. In August, Siemens PLM Software announced a grant to Arizona State University's engineering school to help prepare students for product design positions in manufacturing. Valued at $245 million, the grant includes engineering software, instructional training, and funding for specialized certification programs. Siemens' PLM software package is used by numerous manufacturing firms to design products, coordinate digital designs among design groups and companies, monitor product upgrades and design changes, and track products through their lifecycle.

Some typical positions requiring a combined tech-manufacturing background include SAP business analysts in quality management or procurement. These positions require a bachelor's degree in information technology or a related business field, experience with SAP or similar business application software, and knowledge of processes in manufacturing, operations, logistics, or procurement/quality management.

It's clear that workers with the right combination of skills with new technologies and knowledge of manufacturing will be in demand as the economy gets back on its feet. As AMR's Jacobson concludes, "Regardless of strategy and automation, skilled workers will still be the linchpin."

Doug Bartholomew is a business and technology writer based in California.