Skills Gap: Time for a Tech-Tonic Shift in Manufacturing

Posted By: Tom Morrison Community,

The UK manufacturing sector is a powerhouse, steeped in history and filled with cutting-edge expertise. Today’s conversations within the industry are filled with hot topics, from Industry 4.0, to smart factories, digitalization, and the Internet of Things (IoT). However, the younger generation is viewing the sector somewhat differently which is leading to a widening skills gap. Phil Lewis, Senior VP, Solution Consulting at Infor explains.

Many young people still hold outdated perceptions of manufacturing as a low-tech, blue-collar industry, with just 2 in 5 parents wanting their child to work in the sector. This has been even further perpetuated by our private lives becoming increasingly intelligent and efficient. Gen Z has spent its entire life with technology front and center and are therefore less likely to settle for what they consider a low-tech job.

However, this assumption is a far cry from the reality of the high-tech robotics and pioneering innovation that many manufacturers boast. And is causing a critical challenge for the industry when it comes to capturing the interest of future generations. Especially considering its impact on the widening skills gap, which will only get worse unless tackled. Indeed, a study by Deloitte and The Manufacturing Institute has revealed the skills gap may leave an estimated 2.4 million positions unfilled between 2018 and 2028, with a potential economic impact of $2.5tn.

And, in combination with an ageing workforce, with nearly 20% of workers slated to retire by 2026, all eyes are turning to the talented crop of young and qualified graduates that are looking to start their career. What can the industry do to win young hearts and minds?

Role of emerging tech

When it comes to tech, there are two types of companies within the manufacturing sector. Those who do ‘tech well’, but just need to showcase it better, and those who are still yet to fully get on board and embrace the benefits it can offer.

AI provides the best example of this – it was cited as the fourth highest priority for UK manufacturing leaders in 2024, yet only nine per cent of organizations are leveraging it. This is despite the fact that, along with machine learning, it can facilitate smart, industry-specific applications to improve every aspect of the supply chain. With its ability to factor in an inordinate number of data values, parameters and what-if scenarios, it can produce accurate and timely recommendations for almost every aspect of the manufacturing supply chain.

For example, AI-powered predictive analytics can anticipate equipment failures, minimize downtime and reduce maintenance costs. While robotics and automation, enabled by AI, are streamlining production lines, increasing efficiency, and improving product quality. For nurturing talent and retaining talent, pathways for continuous learning through AI-driven training programs, and exposure to diverse projects can make manufacturing roles more appealing. Overall, it’s a key tool for manufacturing leaders that want to increase productivity inside the business, as well as ramp up their attractiveness as a place to work.

Another example that everyone is talking about nowadays is blockchain which offers enhanced transparency, traceability and security in the manufacturing supply chain. In addition, blockchain enables smart contracts that automate and secure transactions between suppliers, manufacturers and distributors, reducing delays and disputes. When it comes to manufacturing leaders looking to change the perception of the industry and recruit, this technology captures the interest of people looking to directly work in, and address sustainability and ethical considerations in supply chains.

Finally, 3D printing enables rapid prototyping, on-demand production and customization in manufacturing. As well as boasting sustainability benefits, including reduced material waste and energy consumption, which could resonate with environmentally-conscious young talent.

The creativity and innovation inherent in 3D printing may attract younger engineers and designers eager to explore new possibilities and disrupt traditional manufacturing processes.

But is tech enough?

It’s clear that some businesses within the manufacturing industry are already using or incorporating these emerging technologies. For those organizations, where is the issue? Could it be the awareness around their business? How the industry is seen by prospective employees, specifically by graduates? Does the industry have a PR problem?

Collaborating with educators, either at the university level or at vocational colleges, helps build business awareness but also dispel misperceptions of the industry as a whole. The other important step in attracting Gen Z is for hiring managers to strongly communicate the benefits that a career in manufacturing can bring – whether that be higher salaries, diversity, growth opportunities or job security. As well as any unique selling points of the specific business.

For the remaining majority of manufacturing, it’s hard to know where to start with this emerging technology. And it can be daunting when the pressure is on to adopt new tech in the hopes of saving costs, increasing productivity and being seen as more competitive.

This is where big enterprise can step in, to package up emerging tech in simple-to-use use cases and make it more accessible, consumable and easier to use in general.

There is no place like the workplace

In order to tackle the recruitment and skills gap issue, it is also integral that the industry looks within – at the workplace. It is important to appreciate that the way Baby Boomers learned several years ago is vastly different to the fast-paced, digital and social approach that Millennials and members of Gen Z expect today. Implementing digital learning courses and simulations into these workers’ day-to-day jobs will speed up the learning curve and increase retention. Whether it be as part of a set program for apprentices or graduates, or set career pathways for existing employees.

For current and future manufacturing workers to keep up with the changes brought by the fourth industrial revolution, they need high-quality technical skills training. Indeed, Deloitte’s Global Human Capital Trends report shows organizations are moving towards robust work-centered learning programs that encourage employees to upgrade their skills in the natural course of their day-to-day jobs. In other words, the way in which we work and learn should be connected and integrated into one workflow, where workers can effortlessly pull the information they need, when and where they need it.

Equally important, and often overlooked, is the need for ‘soft skills’ training, which covers concepts like critical thinking, problem solving and adaptability. A modern learning management system (LMS) can provide the crucial compliance and technical skills training that workers need to perform their day-to-day jobs, as well as training courses that improve employee soft skills.

Businesses can use an LMS to create branching scenarios that simulate emergency situations, where the employee will be called to use their critical thinking skills to make certain decisions and experience the outcomes in a controlled environment.

Learning and development should begin before the employee is onboarded and continue through every inflection point of the employee lifecycle. Assessments will identify strengths and help match the employee to the best role for them. From there, it’s important to design intelligent development guides with data that can be customized to the person and the job to drive staff performance long after the onboarding period.

Investing in employee development is a crucial step to closing skills gaps that exist now, but also allows an organization to remain compliant and educated on the latest technologies as the manufacturing industry continues to adapt. According to LinkedIn, 94% of employees say that they would stay at a company longer if it invested in their career development. 

Put simply, if you continuously invest in employee development, you will reap the benefits of a more engaged workforce, a smaller skills gap and reduced turnover.

Implementing a modern learning solution that allows workers to quickly develop technical and soft skills will not only be beneficial for their personal development but will also positively impact overall business success and external reputation, therefore benefitting the wider industry. But when it comes to PR-ing these benefits, partnering with specialized recruiters and targeting the right online and physical job boards can make all the difference. In addition to encouraging word of mouth (in its literal sense as well as online) to slowly, yet powerfully, change perceptions around the business and industry.

The PR crossroad

The UK manufacturing sector stands at a PR crossroad. As it grapples with an ongoing skills gap, exacerbated by an ageing workforce and evolving technological landscape, it faces a critical imperative that requires an investment of time and money. Emerging technologies such as AI, blockchain and 3D printing offer a beacon of hope, promising to revolutionize manufacturing and appeal to a new wave of talent, if it actively reaches them.

However, often technology alone is not enough. Collaboration with educators, effective communication of the industry benefits and modern learning solutions are essential to dispel misconceptions and nurture talent. As manufacturing leaders forge ahead, supported by large enterprises and empowered by advanced tools, the path to a vibrant and inclusive future for the sector becomes clearer.


Written by: Author Unknown, for The Manufacturer.