An issue that has been concerning professionals in the manufacturing industry is the lack of a skilled workforce. While Brexit will end free movement, meaning fewer skilled EU workers will move to the UK, the truth is that a skills shortage already existed before 2016. Employers are in dire need of skilled manufacturers and engineers to combat the current gap, which continues to worsen as older employees retire and not enough properly trained young people enter the industry.
Growing the manufacturing workforce is a crucial step that can’t be postponed; at the moment, approximately 186,000 new engineers and manufacturers are needed every year until 2024, but we’re currently facing a deficit of 20,000 graduates annually.
Tackling this issue is key to creating a strong manufacturing base and securing our role in the global economy.
Why is there a skills gap?
From the 6,000 UK manufacturing businesses surveyed by the British Chamber of Commerce at the end of 2018, 81% of them found it difficult to hire employees with the right qualifications and experience. But why is the UK facing a skills gap in the first place?
The general public has a lot of misconceptions about the industry and what a career in manufacturing really means; the perception a lot of people have, including young students, is that manufacturing is not a stimulating or creative profession - or a rewarding one.
In addition, many see manufacturing as a lower quality choice with fewer career prospects. Crushing this stereotype is vital to increasing people’s interest in the industry.
But this is not the only contributing factor. Education plays a major role in growing the number of people entering the industry. An interest in manufacturing should begin earlier than university, so that businesses can partner with school and career events to raise awareness of the sector, in order to spark an interest in students who perhaps hadn’t considered this path.
However, many don’t think education is currently doing enough. In their 2019 Annual Manufacturing Report, Hennik Research found that 57% of UK manufacturers believe the education system is disastrous for the industry and needs a total overhaul.
The manufacturing industry is continuously evolving and making use of new and improved technologies. This means that workers need to be able to keep up with these market and technological changes - otherwise, it can be difficult for businesses to meet the demands of increased output. The modern workforce needs to have a completely different set of skills than the one required just a few years ago, and a lack of proper training can contribute to the widening skills gap in the industry.
Even though Brexit shouldn’t be blamed for this skills gap, it’s also not doing anything to bridge it. On the contrary; a large number of UK manufacturers employ citizens from the European Union in their businesses, but once free movement ends, a decrease in the availability of EU nationals will only worsen the existing skills shortage.
How to grow the UK manufacturing workforce?
If the current skills shortage continues to grow, it’s likely businesses will be unable to fulfil their customers’ demands. Because it’s becoming a challenge to find trained and qualified employees, manufacturers may see their productivity decline due to slower production, increased costs and performance issues. Moreover, a lack of skills can affect a business’s ability to remain competitive in today’s global market.
This is why it’s so important to invest in people and to implement learning opportunities.
There is nothing wrong in inspiring young people to pursue jobs that enable them to work with their minds; however, equal importance should be given to careers where they can work with their hands. For a long time, children have been taught that skilled labour is beneath their potential, so now it’s time to break this stigma.
Increasing the number of apprenticeships in manufacturing is therefore a great solution for businesses looking to bridge the skills gap. Apprenticeships help to increase awareness of the industry and to dispel the many misconceptions surrounding it and allow young people to have first-hand, on-the-job experience of the manufacturing world. This kind of experience is invaluable and can help many to make career decisions geared towards this industry.
Also, given that today’s manufacturing requires specialised knowledge and expertise, it’s necessary that employees learn digital and programming skills, have a deep understanding of automation and know how to work with advanced machinery. Training people in these relevant skills is key to growing the workforce, boosting productivity and staying competitive.
Addressing the low number of women in manufacturing is also a good way to start closing the skills gap. Competency in problem-solving, excelling at conflict resolution, learning how to negotiate and communicate well and working well with others are crucial skills to have in manufacturing - and they’re not gender-specific. Empowering women to pursue a career in manufacturing, be it by participating in initiatives that engage them in manufacturing and STEM subjects or by encouraging more women to seek out mentors, is a win-win for your business.
Growing the manufacturing workforce will lead to higher levels of innovation and productivity, allowing manufacturers to stay competitive and to contribute to both the UK’s and the world’s economy. Reducing a skills shortage that has been years in the making may be a challenge for many; however, knowing where this gap is coming from and how it can affect manufacturing, will help businesses, workers, students and organisations to work towards a solution together.