Stationary plant and machine operators are responsible for controlling and monitoring various forms of machinery and equipment in industrial plants.

Key facts:

  • Around 5 million people were employed as machine and plant operators in 2018, mostly in manufacturing.  Employment in the occupation, following the financial crisis in 2008, fell by 14 per cent between 2006 and 2018.
  • This trend is expected to stabilise, and their employment should remain stable over the period 2018 to 2030. Nonetheless, significant demand for machine and plant operators is forecast, in order to replace those workers who will leave the occupation for one reason or another. The size of this “replacement demand” is estimated at 2 million between 2018 and 2030. 
  • In the workplace, routine tasks, teamwork and the use of machine are the key requirements for machine and plant operators.
  • A significant leverage for boosting qualification levels and skills of these operators could lay to the fact that occupations under this group are often regulated in European countries.
  • Around two-thirds of machine and plant operators held medium-level qualifications in 2018; more or less the same proportion projected for 2030.

Tasks and skills

Machine and plant operators [1] are responsible for controlling and monitoring various forms of machinery and equipment in industrial plants. They can also be involved in the setting up and maintenance of equipment, along with inspecting outputs to check for defects and making adjustments accordingly.

According to Eurofound's Job Monitor, routine tasks, teamwork and the use of machine are the key requirements for machine and plant operators.

Figure 1: Importance of tasks and skills of machine and plant operators

Note: The importance of tasks and skills is measured on 0-1 scale, where 0 means least important and 1 means most important.

The employment level of machine and plant operators is expected to remain almost unchanged between 2018 and 2030, a welcome stabilisation after the 14 per cent drop over the period 2006 to 2018. Although overall change is minimal, different employment trends are expected across the analysed European countries. 13 of them are expected to create more new jobs, while in the remaining 15 an employment decline of machine and plant operators is foreseen.

Figure 2: Future employment growth of machine and plant operators in European countries (2018-2030, in %)


Although new jobs shall not be created overall, an estimated 2 million people are projected to leave the occupation for one reason or another such as retirement[3] and will need to be replaced.

Figure 3: Future job openings of machine and plant operators (2018-2030)

Historically machine and plant operators haven been employed in manufacturing industries, notably in with food, drink and tobacco; rubber/non-metal mineral products and textiles, clothing & leather attracting over one third of the total workforce of this occupation.

Qualification levels are also likely to change due to the increasing complexity of machinery and products: the share of these workers holding medium-level qualifications will remain relatively stable, making up about two thirds of the overall workforce. However, those with high-level qualifications will reach about 12 per cent of the total workforce, climbing from 7 per cent in 2018. Employment of workers with low-level qualifications will decrease.

More information on employment trends for this occupation can be found on the Skills Panorama, here.

Which drivers of change will affect their skills?

Mostly employed in manufacturing industries, stationary plant and machine operators are heavily impacted by developments in particular industries where employment overall is expected to shrink [4] (such as textiles, clothing & leather, mining and quarrying and basic metals & metal products). The falls could be linked to lower level of demand for some products and resources, but also to technological advances being increasingly utilised in production of manufactured goods. However, such disruptive technologies could also stimulate employment of this occupational group in less eminent “employers” of operators, such as motor vehicles [5]. At the same time, more plant and machine operators could be needed in manufacturing due to the increased demand for precision technologies used in production processes. In construction, the growing use of prefabricated building components is likely to support plant and machinery operators’ employment in the sector.

Manufacturing products also change, leading to changes in manufacturing production processes, and introduction of new machines and tools – which inevitably affect operators’ tasks and skills. These changes mainly come as a response to growing concerns for environmental sustainability, but also to new consumer demands: it is customers and markets that define the final product shifting, which shift the focus ‘from mass production to mass customisation’ [6]. This in turn demands for quicker delivery times, shorter production more complex production lines, which can be better served by high-end technology.

  • The introduction of cyber-physical systems into manufacturing and specialised production processes, known as Industry 4.0, is spreading as both consumer and industry clients are increasingly requesting products that integrate this new technology wave [7]. Likewise, additive manufacturing [8] (such as 3D-printing) is gaining grounds in several manufacturing industries, as it is already used in producing from wind turbines to toys [9]. For stationary plant and machine operators the penetration of these new technologies could mean fewer job positions, as some jobs may be replaced; but also higher qualification levels and the types of skills required, so to respond to the new machinery. For example, operators in construction will have to work with “advanced sensors (that) can enable machinery to detect and communicate maintenance requirements, send automated alerts for preventive maintenance, and compile usage and maintenance data” [10].
  • “Big data” is now being more readily used in production and extraction processes, by operating sensors that are integrated with mechanical equipment. This allows staff to monitor system operations remotely, enabling workers to identify and address any inefficiencies [11].One example where this is being used is in the pulp and paper industry, where companies are seeking to minimise their wastage of wood, water and energy [12]. Those responsible for monitoring the efficiency or the functioning of equipment increasingly need the analytic skills to interpret the data produced and the technical skills in setting up and maintaining sensors and similar equipment. Another area that is likely to be developed in this specific occupation will be chemical and energy recovery, which will require stationary plant and machine operatives to possess the technical skills to use these new methods, but also the monitoring, evaluative and problem solving skills to ensure that any new technique or strategy is implemented effectively.
  • As production processes become more interdisciplinary and a greater level of vertical and horizontal integration takes place along the value chain, greater collaborative and communication skills[13] will be crucial in all future manufacturing roles. Workers and operators will be expected to communicate with other colleagues in different factories and offices, along with clients in different countries, facilitated by the use of smart devices [14].
  • Along with the necessary technical expertise that evolves with these emerging technologies and practices stationary plant and machine workers will increasingly need softer skills, such as creativity, effective problem solving and decision making aptitude. As part of wider high accuracy production processes, the ability to evaluate quality and performance is also vital [15]. Also, machines become more sophisticated, their operators will need to understand increasingly complex technical manuals and instructions. So, language skills, in particular English and to some extent German, become even more important [16].
  • Risk of automation: As a part of its Digitalisation and future of work project, Cedefop estimates the risks of automation for occupations. The most exposed occupations are those with significant share of tasks that can be automated – operation of specialised technical equipment, routine or non-autonomous tasks – and those with a small reliance on communication, collaboration, critical thinking and customer-serving skills. The risk of automation is further accentuated in occupations where employees report little access to professional training that could help them cope with labour market changes. Machine and plant operators are reportedly an occupation with very high risk of automation.  

How can these skill needs be met?

Despite the expected decline in employment levels, job opportunities will still exist for this occupational group due to high replacement demands. As stationary plant and machine operators work in industries that are particularly challenged by their ageing workforce (for example, the textile, clothing & leather [17]) the need to plan the smooth transition of know-how between departing workers and new-comers is identified. In-house training of newcomers, as well as on-the-job learning could be organised to facilitate the new generation of operators. Interestingly, some operator jobs are included in the hard-to-fill positions of some industries (for example, leather production machine operator in the Italian tanning industry[18]). Offering learning opportunities to prospect operators could be one of the job characteristics that draw more new entrants in the occupational group.

Nonetheless, the drivers above also call for stationary plant and machine operators to take own responsibility of their learning and pursue ways to expand their knowledge and skills (self-directed learning).

Self-directed learning and continuous update of digital skills

The increasing use of complex programs for computer-aided manufacturing requires that the machine operator proactively pursues new information and learning to update his (sic) digital skills. The update of digital skills can take place as formally arranged training and education. However, as machine operators increasingly work independently, much of the update of digital skills requires that they manage self-directed learning and review documentation, technical manuals and instructions by themselves.

Source: European Commission 2016, The impact of ICT on job quality: evidence from 12 job profiles 

At the same time, a significant leverage for boosting qualification levels and skills of these operators could lay to the fact that occupations under this group are often regulated in Member States. This means that one needs to attend training and pass specific examinations so to receive the licence; and earn additional ‘categories or endorsements’ [19] to reach higher levels of seniority. In this context the involvement of labour market representatives in the curricula development and update of these schemes is particularly important: threatened by replacement and/or skills obsolescence due to technological advancements, up-to-date curricula for initial and continuous professional development could minimise employment risks and ensure these workers are sufficiently skilled.


All web-links were last accessed December 2nd, 2019.

[1] Defined as ILO ISCO 08 group 81 Stationary plant and machine operators. ILO (2012) International Standard Classification of Occupations ISCO-08. 

[3] The need to replace workers leaving a profession for various reasons, such as retirement. For more information on replacement demand and how it drives employment across sectors, can be found on the Skills Panorama here.

[4] Cedefop 2016, European sectoral trends: the next decade, viewed 25 July 2016

[5] Data from the 2016 Cedefop forecast.

[6] European Commission, (2016), The impact of ICT on job quality: evidence from 12 job profiles

[8] “Additive manufacturing (AM) is the umbrella term for technologies that fabricate products by building up thin layers of materials from three-dimensional, computer-aided designs”. MIT Center for Transportation & Logistics Transforming the future of supply chains through disruptive innovation: additive manufacturing, viewed 25 July 2016

[9] World Economic Forum, (2015), Deep shift technology tipping points and societal impact, viewed 25 July 2016

[10] McKinsey& Company, (2016), Imagining construction’s digital future

[11] McKinsey& Company, (2015), Manufacturing’s next act, viewed 25 July 2016

[12] RISE Research Institutes Road map 2015 to 2025 Sensors for increased resource efficiencyviewed 25 May 2016

[13] European Commission, (2016), The impact of ICT on job quality: evidence from 12 job profiles

[15] Davies R., (2015), Industry 4.0 Digitalisation for productivity and growth, Briefing note of the European Parliament, viewed 15 July 2016

[16] European Commission, (2016), The impact of ICT on job quality: evidence from 12 job profiles

[17] European Sector Skills Council Textile Clothing Leather Footwear, (2014), Report 2014

[18] Ibid.

[19] For example, in the UK: CITB, (2016), Construction Plant Competence Scheme Booklet for Operators, viewed 25 July 2016