Training the manufacturing leaders of the future

Posted on 30 Aug 2019 by Jonny Williamson

How should the next generation of manufacturing leaders be nurtured to provide the vision and direction needed for future success?

Dr Judith Shawcross is Programme Coordinator for the Manufacturing Industry Education Research Group (MIERG) at the Institute for Manufacturing, University of Cambridge.

She explains how students can build their leadership skills through in-company industrial projects as a practical element of their education courses.

The industrial leaders of the future will need the ability to adapt to constantly changing circumstances and new (as yet unknown) technologies.

leaders of the future - Leadership Employee Enagement Collaboration Innovation - Stock-Image

They will need to deal confidently with uncertainty while making clear-headed decisions. They will require a practical appreciation of manufacturing capabilities and a willingness to tackle and solve problems, in combination with an innovative mindset and a willingness to take some risks.

Crucially, they also need to develop excellent interpersonal skills, with the ability to motivate their workforce and keep people on board.

All this poses a number of interesting challenges as to how we best educate and prepare these future leaders.

How can educational programmes be designed to help students acquire the ability to adapt, the confidence to innovate, and the emotional intelligence to motivate others?

This is part of a series of articles about the skills crisis facing the UK manufacturing sector.

Each day over the next two weeks we will be publishing a new article looking at some of the serious problems affecting skills and training – and some of the positive initiatives aimed at producing a manufacturing workforce fit for the future. Be sure to check in with each day.

Research from our Manufacturing Industry Education Group (MIERG) has identified that work placements help students develop a broad range of skills, from practical implementation skills for the process-driven aspects of completing the project, through to interpersonal, team-working and self-management skills.

To build these critical leadership skills into an education programme, students need to be exposed to real industrial situations, learning how to apply theory in practice, and understanding the complexity of dealing with a variety of people while navigating company cultures.

Industrial projects, undertaken within a host company, have proven successful as a means to develop these wider capabilities.

There are some common threads identified through our research, and by students and host company contacts, where the projects had the biggest effect on skills development.

1. Dealing with real-world complexity

Academic courses such as engineering tend to cover neatly defined, bounded problems with clear objectives and enough data – think of exam questions! Workplaces rarely work in the same way.

Problems are typically complex, and often have multiple goals that are difficult to define. These will usually have non-engineering success standards and constraints. So, graduates need to make a significant adjustment, requiring personal flexibility and adaptability.

2. Influencing and motivating stakeholders

Student Kiril Krastev worked on a two week project at NSG Pilkington.

“We had to learn how to plan our interactions with different people,” he said. “For example, we realised the value of seeking different viewpoints and inputs to cross-check what we were doing, so that what we presented was more reliable and not just one person’s opinion.

“We often had very limited time with particular specialists, so we had to make sure we were not afraid to ask all the questions we needed answering; this required planning and confidence.”

3. Professionalism

Students find themselves needing to make a significant adjustment to their sense-of-self as well as understanding the expectations that others may have of them when they move into a professional sphere of work.

Through their years in education, they will usually have been in a controlled environment, been accustomed to working mostly with people their own age, and had a set of clear expectations focused on a single outcome (passing an exam or course).

Switching to a professional environment requires a shift in self-perception.

Student Kiril Krastev said, “We had some good tips as part of our preparation for the project, such as emphasising confidentiality and professionalism. This was important for helping us make the transition from an educational setting to a work environment.”

4. Results-driven project management

The projects involve scoping and researching the problem, analysing the issues, developing ideas for improvement, and putting together a business case with recommendations for the company.

The final deliverable of the project is a presentation to senior management.

5. Working in a team

ISMM student Leon Pietschmann found the interpersonal skills required for the project a steep learning curve.

“Communication of a lot of information needs to happen,” he said. “We had three people in our team, so this was complex, and we had to find a way to agree on one solution. We had a few intense discussions, but we got better at resolving these productively.

“It was useful to be in a team as we could focus on different areas and bring different knowledge together to complement each other’s expertise.”

Dr Judith Shawcross is Programme Coordinator for the Manufacturing Industry Education Research Group (MIERG) at the Institute for Manufacturing, University of Cambridge.

The group undertakes research across a wide range of themes relating to educational issues that affect the manufacturing industry.

Find out more about IfM’s manufacturing education programmes at: