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How can we save the automotive industry?

We are facing a major challenge. The automotive industry is working to transition to increased sustainability. It's about circularity and efficiency, but above all about creating attractive workplaces. Today, there is a shortage of assembly personnel and it will get worse. This week, the book Felkod kvinna is coming out and I have written a chapter

Sandra Mattsson with the book Felkod kvinna

Why is automative assembly so important?

We are switching to electrified cars, where part of the battery production and assembly of cars will take place in Sweden. A large number of staff is needed for this. As an example, 1000 people will be employed in the new battery factory in Borlänge (2024) and in Tuve, 3000 people will be needed (2025). We already know that there are not enough people available for today's production. Those born in the 1940's will retire and young people don't want to work in assembly. Demographic changes are not limited to the automotive industry but the same applies to other manufacturing industries such as tool manufacturing, aerospace and machining. Everyone is fighting for skills that don't seem to exist. At the same time, those who work today must learn new things to be able to interact with new technology. The industry as such must become more attractive to those who work today, but also those who do not work there today. There is an enormous potential in attracting people who have not worked with assembly or manufacturing before.

Assembly is still very manual. All cars are assembled on the same assembly line, they do not come in any particular sequence but in the sequence that the customers order them. This means that an all-black SUV can be followed by a red sedan. Assembly personnel use their experience to attach components, screw or glue them. Sometimes there are automatic screwdrivers with pre-set torques or lifting tools (although the latter are used less often due to lack of time). Although there is technology that could solve many assembly tasks, the number of product variants is too large. It is impossible to count how many sub-variants of a car there are (for real!). Therefore, it is not possible to program solutions because it is not possible to say which subvariant should have which subsolution. The final assembly of cars, as well as many other products, is therefore completely manual despite all existing technology. Humans are still far more flexible than, for example, robots. 

This means that people are extremely important and when we discuss circularity, new ways of recirculating components or the possibility of dismantling cars in the same building - even more manual work will need to be done. That is, we need people who assemble AND we also need people who already know how to assemble who are involved in solving sustainability challenges. We need:

  • personnel that already understand what it means to design for disassembly
  • personnel who already know how logistics and maintenance are connected to assembly
  • personnel who know how much resources we lose by not working with continuous improvements
  • take advantage of the power that exists in a group.

Feminism doesn't sell (!?)

Today, it is difficult to get companies involved in projects that deal with feminism. Even when we work in existing projects or apply for projects, it is difficult to work for gender equality. In project applications, the number of women involved in the project and how many have decision power must be described. That may be a good start, but many people don't understand why it should be included. The message of why all types of people should have the same opportunities to work and decide is lost. In project applications they write, for example, that unfortunately there are no women in the field, but that they have women in the work. And perhaps it is stated in the applications that the research group works according to their company's gender equality vision. Noting a number does however not change the way of working. That's not feminism.

It may sound crazy, but the soft issues are slower and the automotive industry and its suppliers are living in "fire extinguisher mode". It's exactly as it sounds. They don't have time for slow changes, they have to run around solving problems. Problems that arise today and in this second. Imagine running a household of 20 people that is self-sufficient. All 20 people want different types of food, have different working hours and you have to solve the planning so that everyone gets to sleep, come to work in a sustainable way and work as needed. In addition, electrical energy is needed for each of the people and some people have different jobs every day. All the time is spent planning and managing daily work, so when the refrigerator breaks down or, for example, the sugar is out, it must be solved immediately. It's not possible to bring in skills development or talk about culture then. There is no time for that. Therefore, it is difficult to get companies to work with these issues. It is easier and more attractive to work with technologies such as VR, AR, additive manufacturing, AI, etc. It is simply not necessary enough to work with gender equality. It doesn't sell. But is it profitable to shut out 50% of the workforce? Just by believing or expecting that women are unwilling or unable to work in industry, labour is excluded. Which will lead to quality defects, loss of production, reduced innovation, risk of not finding problems, reduced commitment, increased absenteeism, increased sick leave, etc. Research in innovation reinforces this. The World Economic Forum notes that diversity leads to (2020):

  • Increased profitability by 25-36%
  • Up to 20% higher innovation rate
  • 19% more revenue for innovation
  • Up to 30% greater ability to identify and reduce business risks
  • Statistically significantly higher engagement and retention (!)

What company doesn't want this? BUT, as said, it's hard to find time for skills development and/or recruitment that leads to diversity when firefighting is what's on the agenda.

FKG’s female network outside of Daimler, 2019

Feminist digitization and the word queer

In 2018, I had the opportunity to lead the project Feminist Digitalization for FKG. The aim of the project was to hold a course on digitalisation for the women's network. We were about 20 women with different roles in the supplier industry who traveled to Germany to compare Swedish and German digitization and to learn more. The result was a new view of digitalization consisting of three key points: 1) All digitization journeys are different, 2) Manage skills, and 3) Start small. Read more below:

1.      Every digitization journey is different

  • Increase skills: companies need to increase their knowledge and leaders are important. They need to understand what and how to digitalize.
    Reduce fear: Give examples of what digitization is, for example, let employees present how they use an iPad at work. Everyone does things differently and the possibilities of digitization can also be exemplified there.

2. Manage skills

  • Demographic change: Both young and old can learn from each other. Create a place where they can be challenged and develop together. For example, young people know more about how digitization tools work, while the older personnel have a lot of tacit knowledge about production. A strategy for skills supply and how to attract labour is required. In Germany, for example, many companies had apprenticeship programs, which meant that they did not have problems with skills in the same way as we have in Sweden.
  • Tranforming work: Jobs are not going to disappear. Instead, they will be transformed, e.g. monotonous work can become service occupations in industry. Knowledge in robotisation, digitalisation and AI will be needed, while experience in good customer contact will always be important. 

3. Start small

  • Low-hanging fruit: Start your digitization journey with low-hanging fruit, for example, you can use the digital data that is probably already available or digitize data that connects two or three machines.
  • Show the profit: Give concrete examples and present a business idea, then the possibilities become clear.

Several of the points are probably recognizable from organizational theory or change processes, but the points about reducing fear, thinking long-term about competence development and showing the profit are something that was not talked about at the time (2018).

The important thing about our work, as I see it, is not that it was women who went on the trip, but that it was a group of people who had not been part of the conversation before who were given the opportunity to have their say on what is important based on their experience in the industry. That is the key: in order to attract new skills, but also to further develop the skills that exist, the culture must change by allowing new approaches to emerge.

Something that can help is the word queer. Like feminism, the word queer can be associated with something that doesn't "sell", something that is difficult to understand why it should be talked about; something that is unknown. Queer is about the fact that there are not just two genders or two choices. There may be more ways than just two. Queer is about not reinforcing the stereotypes that exist, but about opening up for everyone to be able to work in the workplace. Those who are interested and want to should be welcome to work. After all, we really need those who are interested and motivated to build skills quickly - we need a good workforce. And of course, we want our company to be able to retain staff and be able to meet the challenge of, for example, electrification. But how do we create the right conditions?

To talk about culture and norms

Apparently, it's very difficult to change culture. I'm currently taking a course in Norm Critical Pedagogy and the research articles clearly state: It's very difficult. It doesn't help to just know that there are different types of people, but YOU have to want to change the way you act and the way you talk. Often in courses, meetings and workshops with companies, I get to correct those who talk about our operators or personnel. It's "he" here and "he" there. It feels like a super trifle for colleagues and company representatives to be changing a word. "Everyone knows what I mean, and most of the operators I've seen are men," they might say. Yes ok, that may be true. BUT how will women or people that are not identified as men be encouraged to work in an industry where being a "man" is maintained (all men are different!).

It's hard to change because we're clinging to an existing culture where it's not even possible to change the way we talk. Our language is automatic, but it characterizes our culture, which characterizes and sets behavior. The change requires, as it says in the literature and as I see it, that YOU change how you want to treat others and how you behave; And it can really be as simple as changing your language. That you change one word to another word. That in itself will be a big change in how you are perceived and means that you do not reinforce the stereotypes that exist. The big work is about getting everyone into that mindset and twisting and turning the norms that exist in the workplace today. What does our group look like and what unwritten rules do we have? But it requires time and transparency. Change has to come from within, and it has to start with you just as digitalization has to start with the leader. If the leader know what digitalisation means, they can allocate resources and be at the forefront of it. It's about practicing what you preach and about being a role model. It takes commitment. A real interest. And in order for the technology to be used, it must be developed together with the people who work there and it should help their work and their actual tasks. It shouldn't be new administrative technology or something that makes their work difficult.


I have been researching humans in the production system since 2011. There are many years that I have struggled to highlight the soft issues such as interaction and cognition and finally this year the European Commission has said that human centricity are one of three main focuses (via Industry 5.0, 2023). It's great. But it doesn't say how we should work with people. That will be up to the practitioner and since we have not solved this before, I feel that there is a great risk here. I wonder how we can work with people in production without today's society overturning it?

I believe that today's society and norms are a major obstacle. We live in a performance and consumer society where we are supposed to be fast, strong and look good. Sometimes I think it's impossible to change, but then I see that there are many out there who work for the same things as me. There are many who share the value that it is okay to be different and that it is interesting to learn from those who do not live exactly as we do here in Sweden. Sweden is great in many ways, but we are generally bad at culture; to take care of each other and to support each other. On the other hand, we are very good at innovation and change. This is a never-ending job; Because we are constantly evolving as a society. The issue itself evolves as society changes. That is, we must constantly evolve with the issue.

Do you really want to change your way of being and learn more about others who are not like you? What would it mean in concrete terms, for example in terms of language and behavior, and how could it affect your workplace in the long run? Can you save the future of the automotive industry?

Last, I would like to take the opportunity to highlight four people who do a lot for our sustainable work going forward: Gabriella Virdarson, FKG, who does a lot with Kvinnan i Leverantörsindustrin, Johan Bengtsson, Gothenburg Technical College, who has worked with Production for Future, and Ylva Amrén and Åsa Sandberg, PREVAS, and their Sustainability blog.


Sandra Mattsson

Senior Forskare

+46 10 228 47 62

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