By Colin Monk, MD of Michael Page Manufacturing & Engineering

When we talk about the “traditional” job role in today’s workforce, what does that make you think of? It’s a tough question to answer, and with the continual culture of innovation and development in and beyond the manufacturing industry, traditional job roles are evolving. More and more, we see strategic roles in fields such as research and development (R&D) becoming more important than ever to drive innovation and business growth.

But at the same time, these changes are often exposing significant skills gaps within business – and the only way that organisations can conquer this shortfall is through a blend of up-skilling the existing workforce, taking on new staff with modern skills and in some cases, looking beyond the UK talent pool. Last year the OECD reported that 1.28 million highly skilled British citizens were living abroad, significantly more than any other developed economy, and it’s time to bring this knowledge back to the UK.

New talent

Attracting new talent too is easier said than done. The UK manufacturing industry is still suffering from a major identity crisis. 77% of UK manufacturers surveyed by SAP earlier this year said they felt the industry has to improve its image to attract younger recruits. As the economy picks up, it’s essential that organisations look at ways to build the appeal of the UK manufacturing industry once more.

To do this, we must banish outdated views of crumbling facilities and replace these with the reality of cutting edge R&D opportunities that modern manufacturing offers. Many industries are already beginning to make headway here – growth in the aerospace and automotive industries here in the UK is largely attributed to the adoption of cutting-edge technology and gadgets. However with this, we must also recognise that by the nature of R&D, lead times to finally achieving production can be long and investment costs eye-watering. If there is a perception that only the largest companies in the world can afford integration of exciting, cutting edge technologies, then for many other manufacturers, widespread adoption of this identity change may prove challenging. But perhaps these organisations can offer an alternative message...

For instance creating and demonstrating a clear career path and options will also be critical for tempting young people into the industry. A recent CBI survey warned that whilst the roots of economic recovery are now embedded in the UK, a shortage of skills in critical industries may hold back a return to long-term growth. While there have been recent signs that the long felt shortage of ‘stem’ graduates may now be improving, the survey also showed that 41% of businesses expect the shortage to persist for a further three years, with almost half lacking confidence about future high skilled workers particularly in manufacturing, construction and engineering.

Diverse talent

The skills shortage needs a short-term solution however, and to resolve this quickly we have to start looking for diverse talent that can immediately fill available roles. Individuals from overseas, different disciplines within manufacturing, different product lines and even different parts of the supply chain can help build a strong pool of talent and industry expertise.

These types of lateral moves should be seen and communicated for what they are; an opportunity to broaden an individual’s exposure and develop their range of skills and prepare them for senior roles. Should the individual take the opportunity and prove they can adapt to the new responsibilities then this can often lead to a promotion within the short term. If individuals are given the opportunity to broaden their knowledge base, build an internal network and accept challenge in a new environment, a lateral move will always be developmental rather than damaging.

Transferrable talent

Up-skilling and transferring talent within the organisation is also important. Many manufacturers are diversifying their product line to meet market demands. This creates an opportunity for the workforce to up-skill and mimic, adapt and perhaps improve upon best practice from other areas of manufacturing. For example, burgeoning sectors such as clean tech can draw on experience in established industries like automotive. Even lean manufacturing experience in food can help drive efficiencies in the NHS; all options should be explored. Talking specifics, let’s take an engineer who originally qualified 20 years ago through an apprenticeship route in the automotive sector. Now with many further years of investment in niche sector and product training, it’s easy to understand their logic in thinking career progression could only be achieved in-sector and within the tight constraints of their existing product and package knowledge. Twenty years ago wind technology was in its infancy with only small numbers of ‘abinitio’ engineers designing, manufacturing and maintaining equipment in this highly specialised and embryonic sector. As manufacturing technologies in wind advanced, inevitably they paralleled those processes already adopted in other industries such as automotive and so where previously it was unusual for automotive engineers to progress careers in wind, now it is much more common. With a fresh impetus and an alternative professional challenge ahead of them, under-pinned by their highly transferrable skill set, this engineer has embarked on an exciting, new career trajectory; one which innovative and flexible thinking (from both the sector and engineer) has successfully fostered.

With the economy back to its pre-recession levels, it's essential that organisations look at innovative ways to build their workforce. However, if this is to be sustained, the sector as a whole needs to come together and not only improve the 'image' of manufacturing but ensure that transferable skills are maximised across the industry.