Getting WISE to the UK manufacturing skills crisis

With Brexit and an unexpected general election at home, and geo-political uncertainty further afield, UK manufacturing faces an unpredictable future. Now more than ever, companies must explore every avenue to address the pervasive skills shortage.

UK Manufacturing
The UK currently has the lowest percentage of female engineering professionals in Europe.

With Brexit and an unexpected general election at home, and geo-political uncertainty further afield, UK manufacturing faces an unpredictable future. Now more than ever, companies must explore every avenue to address the pervasive skills shortage.

Rapid technological development in keeping with the Fourth Industrial Revolution or Industry 4.0 maybe redefining the manufacturing landscape, yet the change is only compounding the sector’s long-established skills gap.

According to the EEF, a failure to address the issue risks the productivity and economic growth of not only the sector, but that of the UK economy as a whole.

A recurring suggestion is to tap into the UK’s female population and attempt to close the gender gap which exists in manufacturing. It’s been reported that up to 85% of an average manufacturing company’s workforce is male, with just 15% female.

A crucial step in closing this gap and alleviating the skills shortage is to remarket the idea of manufacturing itself. We need to demonstrate the sector as an innovative, dynamic, exciting industry, with plenty of opportunities for rewarding careers. We must actively explore and implement strategies to encourage more women into the workforce, and young women into educational pathways in which to develop the necessary skills.

The identity of an engineer or manufacturer is increasingly an ambiguous one. Images of dirty factories, and men wearing oil-stained overalls are still synonymous with industry. Often, however, this isn’t the case. The huge variety of roles that sit within ‘manufacturing’ is largely unknown to many of those outside of industry, and yet the UK currently has the lowest percentage of female engineering professionals in Europe, according to Women’s Engineering Society figures.

WISE is another organisation dedicated to achieving gender balance in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects. WISE work specifically with a ‘classroom to boardroom’ model, and promotes the importance of girls gaining interest into STEM subjects from an early stage in their education. At the same time, it also offers support to the women working in industry today.

After conducting workshops with a broad cross-section of businesses, WISE has drawn up a unique 10 step industry campaign, for the retention and progression of women in the workforce, and for sustaining female talent in STEM roles.

The programme requires a commitment from companies to comply with the steps of the programme to achieve the best results.

The 10 steps of the WISE sustainability pipeline:

  1. Understand your own position within the issue, and implement and monitoring strategies.
  2. Educate managing staff so they can implement the changes necessary.
  3. Actively address and make changes to any bias and sexism when it occurs in the workplace. This includes “banter” or behaviour which could be misconstrued as disrespect for women, or any other group.
  4. Be creative in job design. A role which has been established in the past might not still work as effectively today. It could be excluding those who may not traditionally fit the role, potentially missing out candidates.
  5. Ensure flexible working is a reality to all employees. Although most companies have this in place, a stigma can sometimes be attached to taking advantage of policies. Actively breaking down and creating easier routes to a flexible working routine encourages both male and female workers to feel comfortable taking it.
  6. Ensure the transparency of opportunities on offer within the company. Women and others not in the ‘in-group’ in an organisation may not be aware of the opportunities available for progression, if they don’t have the right sponsor, access to the right networks, or unwilling to invest time in the politics of self-promotion.
  7. Sponsor talented women, giving them the same exposure as men and support to develop their career. Women engage in women-only activities and networks for support and development. However, others wish to work independently. Assumptions on how a female works is counter-productive. So, work with women to assess how best to support and promote their individual needs.
  8. Ensure women feel confident that they are wanted after a leave of absence, i.e. maternity leave. This works in partnership with flexible working conditions.
  9. See the retention of female workers as a crucial step in maintaining a skilled workforce. Individual companies need to develop a tailored approach to how best promote females within their companies.
  10. Share learning and good practice with industry partners. This can ensure the acceptance of these changes, and it develops a dialogue among companies where women can find support, and explore further opportunities.