As automation rises, innately human skills are vital

West Michigan employers were moving toward increased automation long before the pandemic accelerated that trend. Their experience shows the crucial role and growing value of soft skills in workers expected to perform alongside robotics and artificial intelligence systems.

It is vitally important that West Michigan prepares a new generation by supporting the development of these skills.

This was confirmed by the panelists at our August Issue Spotlight, as we took a deeper dive into our recently published report on The Future of Work. The Issue Spotlight brought together perspectives of employers, educators and workforce development experts. You can see a recording of the session here and read a summary below.

Workers who can be ‘the voice of the machine’

As automation increases, so does employer demand for the innately human qualities – communication, teamwork, problem-solving, flexibility – that allow employees to thrive in the modern workplace.

These soft skills – also known as employability skills or social-emotional skills – are increasingly valuable because they cannot be automated. These skills not only provide employment stability and opportunity, but also are associated with better-paying positions.

Laura Preuss, Manager, Workforce Development & Human Resources at DeWys Manufacturing, said automation has long been embedded in the company’s strategic plan. Although the introduction of robotics at first led to worker anxiety about being replaced, today team members are excited about emerging opportunities in programming, technical support and engineering.

“When you think about it, these team members are now the voice of the machine,” Preuss said “They need to be able to explain to the next person coming in … team members, technicians, even salespeople. They have to explain how it functions.”

The situation is similar at ADAC Automotive, said Lucas McCotter, director of human resources.

“The skills we’ve required have shifted everything up a level,” he said. “We expect our operators at some point to have some level of knowledge about the robots they work with. … It’s no longer enough to be tech-skilled. They could not work with the rest of the team if they cannot communicate.”

These observations confirm the findings at the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, said Brad Hershbein, economist. “Automation and technology are not taking jobs away,” he said. “They are changing the tasks and skills needed to do those tasks.”

While this transformation is most obvious in manufacturing, it is showing up other fields, such as healthcare, where even remote surgery is possible.

Preparing students and workers

In a second panel discussion, Jason Pasatta, director of innovation services for the Ottawa Area Intermediate School District, noted that educators have long recognized that soft skills are key indicators of success in education, employment and life. These are even more valid indicators than standardized tests, he said.

That’s why educators from the West Michigan Talent Triangle collaborated with West Michigan Works! to develop the WorkReady program, which began by researching what employers in the region really need in a job candidate. Pasatta said K-12 educators in the region are now developing a framework, SkillSense, to support schools in the development of similar social-emotional skills.

Post-secondary institutions also have been focusing on soft skills, said Amy Mansfield, dean of the Donald W. Maine College of Business and the College of Technology at Davenport University. Now the emphasis is on formalizing those efforts by providing students with a transcript of accomplishment.

Last year, Davenport launched its Excellence System to track nine competencies – global and intercultural competence; civic and social responsibility; ethical reasoning and action; critical and creative thinking; analysis and problem solving; leadership and teamwork; information and technology proficiency; written communication; and professional communication.

These are being embedded into existing courses, and students can select a competency to emphasize, Mansfield said. Their performance is recorded along with their course grade.

In workforce development, the challenge has been to find a system that meets the needs of all types of workers, said Angie Barksdale, CEO of West Michigan Works!

That was the purpose behind the WorkReady program, she said. WorkReady addressed three needs: It is affordable to scale across many walks of life; it provides pre- and post-assessments; and it is based on the needs of regional employers. Participants who successfully complete the program are issued a WorkReady certificate to show employers.


The multiple benefits of soft skills

The Issues Spotlight session and findings from the Future of Work report confirmed that:

  • The transformation of the workplace will take time – but it is happening now
  • Soft skills should be valued as much as technical skills
  • Transferrable skills lead to job stability, increased pay and better career agility
  • Helping those without skills should be a goal for the community

As employers increasingly turn to automation and AI to replace workers who cannot be found in the market today, West Michigan needs an intentional effort to help workers upskill. This will benefit employers as well as workers, who can find better wages and be more adaptable to changes in the workplace.



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