Bridging the manufacturing skills gap with non-traditional learning

Posted on 10 Aug 2022 by James Devonshire

It’s no secret that the UK manufacturing industry is experiencing a massive skills gap. Indeed, the latest ONS figures show there were 95,000 manufacturing vacancies in April-June 2022 — a 49.5% year on year increase. But what’s the answer? Dr. Gillian Murray, Deputy Principal for Business and Enterprise at Heriot-Watt University, believes graduate apprenticeships, as well as more flexible, less traditional learning mechanisms, are crucial for bridging the gap. The Manufacturer's James Devonshire sat down with with Gillian to find out more.

Speaking recently at a hearing with the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, Stephen Phipson, chief executive of manufacturing organisation Make UK, told MPs that skills shortages in Britain’s manufacturing sector are costing the UK £7bn in lost economic output — equivalent to £21m a day in lost gross domestic product (GDP) per worker.

“We’ve got a labour market that’s tightened to the extent that it’s tipping businesses into crisis management mode rather than having that confidence to get out there and invest,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Korn Ferry Institute’s recent Future of Work: The Global Talent Crunch report reveals how the global manufacturing industry is “headed toward a crisis”, with the sector facing a labour shortage of 7.9 million workers by 2030. Korn Ferry estimates that this will cost the UK economy $17.5bn (£14.4bn) in lost manufacturing output.

Heriot-Watt University’s Dr. Gillian Murray explains how the Scottish university is doing its bit to alleviate the situation.

‘A perfect storm’

Gillian opened by explaining how while there’s been a talent gap and skills shortage for many years, right now, companies are facing a “perfect storm”, one that is exaggerated to a certain extent for manufacturers.

“Coming out of the pandemic, the situation has become more acute. Technology is moving faster now than we ever anticipated and green jobs are accelerating too. Then there is the trend of people deciding not to work, the so-called ‘Great Resignation’ that people are talking about. And finally there is the other new trend of people leaving their jobs in search of more fulfilling roles with greater flexibility: the ‘Great Reshuffle’,” she said.

Gillian said that for manufacturing, with its less than glamorous perceived image and often overlooked career paths, the knock-on effect is exacerbated.

With the Korn Ferry Institute’s research showing that by 2030, there will be a global human talent shortage of more than 85 million people, isn’t it time we started looking at alternatives to tackle the situation? Gillian believes it is.


The manufacturing industry is facing a labour shortage of 7.9 million workers by 2030. Credit: Shutterstock

Skills at scale

Founded in 1821, Heriot-Watt is a pioneer in bringing education to working people and creator of a global movement through the development of the world’s first Mechanics Institute. The University has a long, rich history of supporting non-traditional learners. In fact, Gillian said that approximately 50% of Heriot-Watt’s learners today are “non-traditional”, with the majority in their late 30s and early 40s and in work, highlighting the educational establishment’s diverse nature.

Gillian then talked about the importance of being able to scale, particularly given the enormous talent shortage being faced.

“We cannot begin to tackle the situation with just traditional approaches to skills and training. With a looming talent shortage of more than 85 million people, the key element is scale. And at scale requires not only people learning in traditional ways – be it through learning while in employment, such as apprenticeships – but also supporting individuals with more flexible learning options such as online education,” she said.

“The ability to learn while you’re earning is absolutely critical for achieving the skills at scale that are needed,” she added.

But not everyone is able to upskill or reskill through a 4-year degree course, which is why graduate apprenticeships are only part of the puzzle, according to Gillian. She cited a recent initiative that sought to upskill individuals during the pandemic. Heriot-Watt was part of the Upskilling Scotland Scholarship, a programme that was fully funded by the Scottish Funding Council and designed to offer access to free masters-level courses online and at a pace people are comfortable with.

The fact that over 500 individuals from more than 350 different organisations took advantage of the programme is testament to the important role such bite-sized educational initiatives can play.

Gillian also explained the critical role of universities and other educational establishments in attracting young people into sectors like manufacturing. While young people are often very keen to enter higher education, there is a tendency for engineering and manufacturing pathways to sometimes be overlooked.

But with the manufacturing sector accounting for around 10% of total UK economic output in 2021, the importance of ensuring industry’s future success by training the workers of tomorrow has never been more pivotal.

Skills, innovation and women in STEM

Gillian concluded our discussion by saying that we cannot tackle the size and scale of the talent/skills shortage with just tactical responses. It requires agile leaders who are themselves open to the idea of retraining, as well as embedding a culture of skills and innovation.

“We often talk about skills and innovation in different conversations, but the two go hand in hand. The key is to look at innovation and skills together to address productivity,” Gillian said.

The National Robotarium, a partnership between Heriot-Watt University and the University of Edinburgh, is a great example of how skills and innovation complement each other.

Supported by £21m from the UK Government and £1.4m from the Scottish Government, the National Robotarium is due to be completed this year and is located at Heriot-Watt’s Edinburgh campus.

Led by industry needs, the National Robotarium will form a centre of excellence for Robotics and Artificial Intelligence. Delivering pioneering research and knowledge exchange to address real-world global challenges and industry needs, while developing existing and future talent pipelines.

Gillian also emphasised the importance of encouraging women to consider STEM careers. After all, women make up c. 50% of the UK population, so it is vital to attract them into the manufacturing sector if we are to overcome the talent and skills shortage.

Heriot-Watt’s Mary Burton Project is designed to increase women’s participation in STEM.

Named after the first female director of Heriot-Watt College, the Mary Burton Project has two main aims:

  • Increase the number of women that enrol onto Heriot-Watt’s STEM courses by working with local schools to provide support, role models and corporate exposure to prospective students.
  • Support female students to complete their course and secure employment into male dominated industries.

Through initiatives like the Mary Button Project, the University hopes to secure a minimum of 25% women on all its degree programmes.

With the changes and challenges facing the manufacturing industry, Gillian encourages employers to use all means necessary to help plug critical skills gaps and welcome young people into the workplace.

About Dr. Gillian Murray

Dr. Gillian Murray, Deputy Principal for Business and Enterprise at Heriot-Watt UniversityDr. Gillian Murray joined Heriot-Watt University in October 2016 to lead on the development and implementation of the University’s Enterprise and Business Engagement Strategy, mobilising the university’s intellectual and capital assets to effect greater impact regionally, nationally and globally. The position is in support of the university’s strategic vision of being a world-leading institution developing entrepreneurial students and staff who addressing global challenges to drive transformational social and economic benefits.

Gillian is passionate about driving global innovation and skills development using new digital technology to break down collaboration barriers and facilitate co-invention. She is currently the Chair of the Centre for Work Based Learning, working with partners in Scotland to enhance opportunity through work-based learning.

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