Guest Commentary

Walt Malone: New skills — not degrees — are key to workforce transformation

Walt Malone, vice president of human resources for Koch Industries
Walt Malone, vice president of human resources for Koch Industries Courtesy photo

As a new decade dawns, the U.S. workforce will face tremendous challenges, but also unprecedented opportunities, especially in manufacturing.

We know that the face of the workforce is changing. As the Wall Street Journal reported in December, American manufacturers are on pace to employ more college graduates than workers with a high school education or those without high school degrees in the next three years. While it is essential for manufacturers to hire developers, coders, analysts, and employees with specialized backgrounds, employees across our manufacturing operations are proving that it doesn’t take an advanced education to have a fulfilling, well-paying career.

At Koch, we have close to 2,000 openings in manufacturing roles throughout our enterprise. These openings won’t all be filled by employees with a four-year degree.

Much of the U.S. workforce is facing a future where their current roles will almost certainly give way to automation, artificial intelligence and other innovations. A recent report by the McKinsey Global Institute highlights the importance of upskilling current employees and supporting programs that prepare the emerging workforce. Without continuing education initiatives and skills training across demographic groups, education levels, and geography, the report found that automation and other technological changes could leave millions of workers behind. That is why manufacturers must encourage alternatives to traditional educational structures while empowering employees with the tools to improve and transform.

By 2028, there could be as many as 2 million unfilled manufacturing jobs across the United States. Filling that gap will require not just a shift in how businesses think about these roles but also how employees can grow with them.

These transformations are happening everywhere we look. Koch Industries employs more than 67,000 people in the United States, including various manufacturing and processing facilities. More than 3,400 work for Koch companies in Wichita and across Kansas. From fuel to electronics to fibers for clothing, we embrace continual transformation, as individual employees and as businesses. We do it not only for the businesses’ long-term success, but with the knowledge that this leads to personal transformation — as employees grow into their roles, develop new skills, build upon their existing talents, and sync personal passion and aptitude with industry change.

Consider Georgia-Pacific master technician Mike Cooper, who started his career in Crossett, Arkansas, more than 40 years ago. He began by unloading toilet paper packages off the factory line and packing them into boxes. Today, Cooper works at Crossett’s Diamond Plant, one of several Georgia-Pacific facilities using autonomous laser-guided vehicles to move product more efficiently. While his position gave way to automation, Cooper saw an opportunity use his prior knowledge to make these laser-guided robots work even smarter. Cooper’s ingenuity has led other Georgia-Pacific facilities to adopt his innovative fix to these autonomous vehicles — resulting in more product being shipped, less shifting of product during transportation, and improving overall efficiency.

Recognizing that manufacturing jobs are requiring new and ever-changing skill sets, the industry must embrace talent that reflects a desire to improve and transform. By empowering those employees who have embraced a real-time, life-long learning mindset – irrespective of their educational attainment – manufacturers will not only keep pace with the rate of change but also drive new transformations.

Walt Malone is vice president of human resources for Koch Industries.
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