How to combat the skills deficit in the manufacturing industry

By Dave Johal, ManpowerGroup.

For over two centuries, the manufacturing industry has been a crucial growth engine for the UK economy. Even now it’s responsible for 45% of the country’s exports, totalling £275bn and making the UK the ninth largest manufacturing nation in the world. 

With Industry 4.0 unlocking enormous opportunities for manufacturing businesses, the sector is adopting advanced digital technologies, including artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML) and Internet of Things (IoT) connectivity. These are enabling manufacturers to make smarter products faster and more efficiently than ever before, and meet the growing consumer demand for personalised products and services. 

But manufacturing is not all about machines and smart technology. The sector’s evolution, success or failure is also heavily dependent on the workers that implement and manage these technologies. 

Blending man and machine

Rapid digitalisation is driving a shift in the skills required by manufacturers. As machines become more intelligent and organisations invest in smart factories, there’s a growing need for people able to design, test and manage highly connected systems and innovations. According to our research, almost half of all roles in manufacturing will need to evolve within the next three to five years, while two million new jobs will be created. 

As a result, the sector is facing an alarming skills shortage. According to the British Chamber of Commerce, 81% of UK manufacturers are having trouble finding staff with the right qualifications and experience. 

With unemployment at an all-time low and increasing numbers of job vacancies in the market, competition for talent is fierce. It’s imperative that UK manufacturers start bridging this skills gap now, quickly and creatively.

Upgrading skills and capabilities

With the war for talent raging, manufacturing firms need to shift gears and start building the skills they need by upskilling and reskilling their existing workforce. This will be crucial to plugging the short-term talent gaps that will continue to appear as advanced manufacturing further evolves. 

To prepare workers for the new demands of more digitally focused manufacturing roles, organisations should look to implement short training programmes. These should be focused in terms of the content covered and last no longer than six months. Any longer than this and organisations risk their people becoming disengaged. 

At the same time, manufacturers must foster a culture of continuous learning across their businesses. Offering repeat training and refresher courses is important, as these will help cement existing knowledge and ensure that employees are being kept up to speed with the latest developments and trends shaping and changing the industry. 

Programmes like this will help British manufacturers build the sustainable talent pipeline they need to avoid future skills gaps and establish a workforce that has the technical and functional skillsets required to drive their businesses forward in the digital age. 

Building a sustainable and cost-effective workforce

Making a concerted effort to train, upskill and reskill their employees will also help manufacturers to better manage the costs of talent acquisition and retention. Wages in the sector have increased significantly over recent years, rising from an average of £356 per week in February 2000, to a high of £612 per week in April 2019.

These escalating costs are being driven by the shortfall between talent supply and demand in the sector, combined with the more technical skills required to bring in advanced manufacturing. With costs close to spiralling out of control, manufacturers must take a fresh look at their hiring and training policies if they’re to secure the best people and future-proof their businesses. 

As digital transformation and the fourth industrial revolution take hold, manufacturing leaders and employees need to embrace a new work environment where digital technologies must blend with human skills. Specialist recruitment will always remain a critical part of UK manufacturers’ talent strategy. However, with the added market pressures exacerbating skills shortages and driving the cost of talent up, these businesses will have to adapt and look to build talent from within their workforces as well. 

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