Image: George Joch/Argonne National Laboratory Image: George Joch/Argonne National Laboratory

In common with many other industries, manufacturing is facing a global skills shortage. Stephen Dyson looks at how we can inspire the next generation of digital manufacturers.

Technology continues to push the boundaries of conventional manufacturing, with conventional production facilities slowly being replaced by ‘smart’ factories, meaning employees can often spend more time using a computer than they do hands-on with more traditional manufacturing equipment.

However, there is currently an insufficient number of engineers possessing the experience and qualifications required to operate this sophisticated equipment and machinery, or to fully support the latest technological developments around newer processes and techniques such as 3D printing.

Demand outstripping supply

A number of recent industry reports have highlighted the lack of qualified individuals with the skillset required for today’s tech-centric world.

2017 Engineering UK: The State of Engineering, for example, highlights the extent to which the current demand for qualified engineers is outstripping supply, indicating an annual shortfall of at least 20,000 skilled engineers. The report forecasts that, to meet the country’s manufacturing needs, 186,000 people with engineering skills will be required each year until 2024.

Manufacturing businesses elsewhere in the world face similar problems, with projections by Deloitte suggesting that around 3.5 million engineering roles will need to be filled in the US by 2025, and that two million of these are expected to be affected by a lack of sufficiently skilled workers.

Tackling misconceptions

While it’s not just the manufacturing industry that faces a shortage of skilled workers, there are a number of reasons why this sector is particularly affected right now.

Qualified engineers may often leave their particular areas of expertise in order to take up a more lucrative career in a different field, for example. What’s more, manufacturing can still be perceived as being unskilled manual labour, a view no longer reflective of a modern factory floor. This issue of perception was highlighted in a study carried out in the US in 2016, according to which 71 percent of young people didn’t consider manufacturing to be a high-tech career choice.

If the industry hopes to close its skills gap, and inspire more young people to pursue a career in engineering and manufacturing, it’s important to dispel these outdated misconceptions, and raise greater awareness among the younger generation of what working on the modern factory floor actually involves.

Hiring and inspiring

As they undergo a form of digital transformation, businesses across all industries will increasingly need employees who can adapt to, and evolve with, the latest advances in technology.

By recognising the importance of building a workforce comprised of intelligent, tech-savvy problem solvers, manufacturers can begin to concentrate on hiring and training those employees that will be able to stay one step ahead of these advances, driving further investment in technology, and inspiring young talent to become the next generation of skilled engineers.

Stephen Dyson is Head of Industry 4.0, Protolabs