The future of work: modernising manufacturing to attract new talent

Rohit Gupta, AVP manufacturing and logistics at Cognizant, talks about how emerging technologies can be used to attract skills into the industry.

Rohit Gupta
Rohit Gupta, AVP manufacturing and logistics at Cognizant

The manufacturing sector, like many others nowadays, is characterised by a multi-generational workforce each with their own set of skills and working preferences. SAP’s latest Manufacturing Success report, in conjunction with Cognizant, found that 15% of employees are over 55 years old and 17% are under the age of 24. However, nearly half of manufacturers in the study expressed difficulties in retaining and attracting younger workers into the organisation.

The industry continues to be perceived as being old fashioned and dull in comparison to other sectors such as media and retail. Therefore, it is no surprise that 71% of respondents think the manufacturing industry needs to improve its image to attract new recruits.  Interestingly, this perception is actually incorrect; the manufacturing industry is now at the forefront of innovation, and organisations in this sector have a lot to offer. How, then, can manufacturers shift their unfashionable image thereby attracting the best talent?

The Government has already started to help by launching its See Inside Manufacturing initiative with McLaren to encourage youngsters at school to design a motorless vehicle worthy of Formula 1 status. According to Business Secretary, Vince Cable, the manufacturing sector is crucial to building a stronger economy, supporting two and a half million jobs and contributing almost £140 billion a year to the UK. While these initiatives are great at targeting and engaging students to see the fun side of manufacturing and design, businesses in this sector also need to focus on the work environment itself to boost recruitment figures and keep the economy thriving.

To attract diverse workers of all ages and skills, the manufacturing industry needs to support better digital and collaborative ways of working and potentially update their business processes. For example, how can organisations meet the needs of employees wanting greater flexible working, whether male or female? And how do they ensure successful knowledge and skills transfer between older and younger workers?

The right tools for the trade

Over half (52%) of manufacturers say they have difficulties offering the kind of flexibility that younger workers in particular are looking for. In addition, organisations need to account for the digitally-savvy candidates of today. As they move into the work environment, they expect the same technology they have been using at home and during their studies and this is true for more technically-aware experienced employees too.

To meet this demand, businesses will need to become more nimble as well as adapt to and adopt disruptive technologies (such as social, mobile, analytics and cloud or “SMAC”) and new ways of working if they are to capitalise on employees’ potential. For example, integration of social networks could improve collaboration among office-based staff and mobility, analytics and cloud computing technology will allow for remote working among sales staff.

The emergence of wearables in manufacturing could enable assembly line workers to remotely check stock levels of parts and materials in quicker time, so they know when replenishments are required.  However, using such technology is all well and good in theory, but putting it into practice is often where the challenge lies. Business heads within manufacturing will need to decide which combination of solutions and tools will work best for their organisation and, once agreed, how they will integrate the new tools seamlessly within the workforce.

Encouraging knowledge transfer

Collaboration between different age groups of workers will remain critical. Younger generations can mentor their elders on how to use newer technologies, while older generations can impart key technical knowledge and skills from their extensive years of experience. For example, according to SAP’s report the emergence of new technologies, such as 3D printing and smart products, look set to alter the manufacturing landscape at a fundamental level. Not only will these result in new competitors, but they also create the need for new skills, just as the revolution in newspaper publishing did in the late ‘80s.

Future of work leaders

Other sectors are leading the way when it comes to catering for different age groups and changing the physical work environment to support the future. Notably, media and technology companies are making big efforts here to create work environments that are adaptive to employee needs and behaviour.

For example, employees at the Skullcandy International Office in Zurich, Switzerland can alter and move their desks to work individually or collaboratively. In the UK, BBC North in Manchester is designed with “velcro and wheels” flexibility, which enables the space to easily change depending on the task at hand and environment required.

It is these kinds of small design changes that can really make a difference. From flexible work stations right through to supplying employees with tablet and mobile devices to work on the move, or providing more natural light for the production line and offering break rooms or high-quality restaurants for employees working long shifts – the possibilities are vast. But organisations need to think about what they want to achieve before implementing change. Do they want to encourage creativity, greater collaboration or simply provide more spaces to relax and unwind?

Only when manufacturers embrace new working processes and practices, along with physical workspace design will they see greater retention and enthusiasm from employees, while attracting more people into the industry. Collaboration and knowledge sharing between different age groups will be critical and this can be aided with the latest technology such as social media.

In this way, innovation will not only help manufacturers run better by enhancing employee efficiency and productivity, but also run differently by offering a work environment that is stimulating and a cut above the competition. Ultimately, this will shake off the industry’s rather outdated image to become a desirable place for people to work now, and in the future.