Rise of the machines causing skills shortages, new report finds

Posted on 1 Jul 2015 by Jonny Williamson

The advance of robotics and 3D printing is boosting the demand for highly-skilled, IT literate workers in the UK’s advanced manufacturing sector, according to a new study by the Government’s skills experts the UKCES.

The global advanced manufacturing market is predicted to double in size to £750bn by 2020, largely driven by developments in new technologies.

But the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES) report – Skills and performance challenges in the advanced manufacturing sector – warns that the advances achieved through automation are at risk if the right people with the right skills are not available to support them.

Automation InfographicThe sector is already experiencing difficulties in recruiting the right people – with employers in this sector nearly twice as likely to report a hard-to-fill vacancy than in the economy as a whole.

Dr Vicki Belt, assistant director at UKCES, commented: “There’s a real demand for highly IT literate production managers and production directors with strong technical and business skills.

“These are the people managing the machines. They are responsible for maximising the production processes and quality assurance of outputs from robotics and 3D printers. It’s all about a balance of experience, knowledge, and softer skills.”

IT skills, understanding of complex materials, and the ability to translate digital design into real-world production are set to be some of the most important skills for those working in advanced manufacturing sectors – from assembly workers to production engineers.

In particular, quality assurance is becoming a key skill, and one that is holding back advances in this sector.

Robots operating in one of the Chassix plants - image courtesy of Chassix
Robots operating in one of the Chassix plants – image courtesy of Chassix

A large manufacturer commented in the report: “There has been a major change in how we spend our time on the production line. Five years ago we would spend about two hours producing something and ten minutes checking it and filling in the paperwork.

“With new technologies like 3D printing, we can now make things in 10 minutes, but because the parts are so complex we then need two hours to check it and document it. This has turned everything on its head.”

The report also shows that the number of high-skilled jobs in the sector is projected to increase, as the importance of R&D raises demand for workers with higher degrees and specialisms.  The search for high-performing staff will also make the UK workforce more international in nature.

The growing automation of production processes, however, will lead to a reduction in low skill and machine operative roles.

Belt continued: “Some employers are tackling their skills need with in-house talent development, or taking on apprentices, but across the sector there’s still a real challenge to ensure sufficient talent to realise the productivity gains and future growth made possible by advancing technology.”

Ann Watson, chief executive, Semta.
Ann Watson, chief executive, Semta.

Ann Watson, chief executive of Semta, the Sector Skills Council for the engineering and advanced manufacturing industries said: “If only we could generate skills on a 3D printer – but it takes a little more effort, insight and time than that.

“The evolutionary process of IT – and its impact on manufacturing – ever quickens and we are here to keep ahead of the curve. It’s essential that the skills needs of the nation are met if we are to prosper in the decades ahead.”