How manufacturing can attract the hi-tech talent it needs


Manufacturing has an image problem. Many people associate it with repetitive tasks, production lines and routine work, so this vital sector may well not be the preferred option for the next generation of aspiring job seekers. But exciting developments are transforming both the industry itself and the future workforce it will depend upon.

Technological advances have changed the manual production lines of old into highly efficient, high-tech environments where AI and automation are king. Digitization has allowed many of the repetitive tasks associated with manufacturing to be performed by machines, freeing human operators to address more sophisticated duties.

But the increasing influence of automation doesn’t necessarily mean there will be fewer jobs. Innovation in manufacturing is set to create almost three and a half million new manufacturing positions in the US alone by 2025.

The new jobs created by a burgeoning manufacturing sector will need to be filled by highly skilled, technology-driven operators and technicians, capable of overseeing the increasingly sophisticated production environments of the future.

A shift away from degrees

As such, old distinctions between white-collar workers – who did the thinking – and blue-collar workers – who did the doing – are outdated. Today’s workplace requires a fresh breed of new-collar workers who are constantly learning and possess the intelligence and knowhow to thrive in increasingly complex manufacturing environments.

The term ‘new collar’ was first used to describe a new breed of employees at tech companies. These workers acquire their skills, knowledge and qualifications on the job, rather than through formal academia. The concept was first developed by the head of IBM Ginni Rometty, as she faced the challenge of hiring user interface designers and cloud computing technicians before those subjects were being taught at university.

It requires a shift from recruiting based on degrees, to recruiting based on skills or the ability to acquire skills. And it puts the onus on companies to develop appropriate training programmes which will attract the talent they need, potentially creating qualifications that can be viewed on a par with university degrees.

Now, the challenge that first applied to technology companies is relevant to many different industries, manufacturers among them.

Talent gap

The task facing manufacturers is how to attract technically qualified and capable people in an increasingly digitized world, where other industries are competing for the same limited talent pool. Unless the problem is addressed, the world could face a talent gap, with serious repercussions for future productivity.

A skills gap between industry needs and available knowhow could be particularly damaging to the rapidly growing economies of developing regions like Southeast Asia. In many of these countries, the opportunities of new technologies such as AI, automation and the Internet of Things have been embraced fully.

Boosting the manufacturing sector’s reputation is a good first step towards preventing a skills gap developing. From outside, the sector is still perceived by many as dated and part of the old industrial era, rather than the high-tech world of 3D printing, AI and robotics that it has become. The sector needs to dispel such misconceptions in order to attract the best talent.

But it also needs to take concrete action to appeal to new graduates and its existing workforce, by offering on-the-job training resulting in qualifications on a par with traditional ones from university.

Building bridges

Today’s graduate students and career starters have grown up surrounded by technology and the manufacturing industry could become a magnet for those interested in working in a technical environment. Appealing to the tech-savvy nature of current and future job seekers not only raises the industry’s profile but makes applicants aware of the qualifications they will need for a successful manufacturing career.

Programs that interact with schools and colleges help to build bridges between manufacturing and tomorrow’s workforce, highlighting the career potential of the industry. Companies like Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI) sponsor high-performing students to develop their talents for a career in manufacturing. For example, MHI awards scholarships that focus on engineering, research and development to encourage high achievers in the Department of Aeronautical and Space Engineering school at Hanoi University of Science and Technology.

Lifelong learning

But the learning cycle doesn’t end alongside formal education. The rapidly evolving nature of manufacturing means that some people may need to retrain several times throughout their careers, as technology makes some jobs redundant and creates new positions.

Manufacturers have a clear opportunity to avoid a skills shortage by retraining or upskilling their existing workforce to fill new roles created by technological change.

And new qualifications could facilitate former blue-collar workers moving into more secure, better paid and more challenging jobs, opening up more attractive career propositions.

Working in partnership with policymakers, employers can raise the profile of manufacturing, and ensure that current and future generations of employees have the skills and experience to ride the wave of technology that will continue to wash over global manufacturing.

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