How to turn the manufacturing skills gap into an education opportunity

Now more than ever before, a combined approach is needed to tackle the skills gap head on. Brendan Lynch, CTO and board member of the Worcestershire 5G Consortium, explains why.

New technologies are continuing to disrupt industries, from supply chain level right through to assembly processes and customer service. One industry in which this move to more innovative processes is especially prominent is manufacturing.

As factory equipment is modernised and traditional manufacturing processes revolutionised, a different set of human skills is required to operate the technology and manage a newly digitised set of operations.

Technological innovation continues to drive automation, and as this occurs, a skills gap has emerged in the manufacturing industry. Existing workers aren’t always equipped with the right digital skills to navigate new factory processes and an understanding of how to work alongside automated assembly lines, for example.

Manufacturing Skills Gap - Digital Technologies Smart Factory Automation Robots Digital Tools - Stock Image

Digitisation fuelling job insecurity

There is widespread misconception that the introduction of new technologies into the manufacturing process is responsible for eliminating jobs. This is not true. It’s not a case of a lack of jobs. Indeed, research reveals quite the reverse, showing that job openings in the manufacturing industry have been growing at double-digit rate since mid-2017.

The issue stems from the fact that these jobs demand a new set of digitised skills that the existing workforce don’t currently possess. It is not jobs that are lacking, but rather the right skills to fill them.

Therefore, the problem for the manufacturing sector is not job insecurity but the fact that it is failing to attract and educate new talent. Indeed, research by The Manufacturer shows that only 2% of manufacturers believe that the system is equipping young people for careers in the industry.

This is an issue that urgently needs to be tackled. Data shows that as many as 2.4 million positions may be left unfilled globally between 2018 and 2028.

The consequences of this for the manufacturing sector could be catastrophic, resulting in dramatic falls in productivity and lost revenue, not to mention the scale of missed opportunity for industrial workers to substantially expand their skillset.

The potential economic impact of these positions being left unfilled is estimated to be $2.5 trillion. It’s clear that steps need to be taken to navigate the changes that are taking place across the manufacturing industry.

Why is it so important to embrace new technologies?

New technologies present a huge opportunity for the UK to achieve ‘Industry 4.0’, boost national productivity and revive British industry. Digital infrastructure, in the form of smart factories, will help streamline traditional factory processes, hugely enhancing operational efficiency and leading to an improvement in the business bottom line.

Smart Factory Digital Tools - Stock Image

In particular, 5G holds real potential to transform British industry. It offers unparalleled availability, instantaneous response times, huge amounts of bandwidth and secure connectivity through its focused ‘security by design’ approach.

The unprecedented levels of connectivity that 5G promises to deliver will have significant impact on productivity levels. Early trials in Worcestershire point to a 1% increase in productivity for manufacturing firms using 5G, which could amount to an additional £1.78bn a year for the UK economy.

The Annual Manufacturing Report 2018 shows that 92% of manufacturers believe that smart factory technologies will enable them to increase productivity levels per headcount.

This is, irrefutably, an opportunity that is not to be missed. However, these forecasts will only become reality if the industry steps up and educates the next generation of engineers to operate the future connected factory and maximise the potential of new technologies.

Collaboration and education: The keys to success

It is vital that we work together as a nation to cultivate a workforce that is capable of flourishing in the smart factory. It is the duty of the UK government, businesses and academic institutions to collaborate to ensure manufacturing workers of both the present and future are equipped with the digital skills they will need to navigate the smart factory.

The job role of the future will require extensive knowledge of mechanical machinery and also a comprehensive understanding of the comms networks operating the smart factory. Only when these skills are incorporated into the training and qualification process will the full potential of Industry 4.0 be realised.

In order to future proof their organisations and maintain a competitive edge, business leaders should invest in employee training. Research shows that manufacturing firms are 8% less likely to have a dedicated training budget compared to all firms.

With the future of the manufacturing sector dependent on the creation of this hybrid engineer, this is a statistic that needs to change. Upskilling existing workforces and educating engineers of the future should be a priority in 2019.

There are many different marketing ideas for manufacturing companies that can turn ideas into revenue - image courtesy of Shutterstock.

The importance of communication

Young people are not always aware about the extent of the employment opportunities that are available to them in the manufacturing sector. To bridge this communication gap and encourage an influx of new talent, it’s important that there are measures in place to inspire and incentivise young people to join the sector.

This can be achieved through a variety of channels. For example, better informed career advice in schools to ensure students are made fully aware of their choices at key transitional stages, more effective and targeted outreach from employers to make clear the exact nature of the openings available and vocational, community or university courses made more universal and affordable.

A combined drive to improve communication between private and public sectors will be a key feature of the solution to tackle the skills gap.

The future workforce

Now more than ever before, a combined approach is needed to tackle the skills gap head on. Education systems, government and manufacturers have a shared responsibility to join forces and upskill the existing workforce and incentivise more young people to join a fast paced, dynamic industry that is balancing on the cusp of an Industry 4.0 breakthrough.