Tackling the manufacturing skills crisis

The UK’s skills crisis shows no signs of abating. A severe deficit in skills has affected 40% of companies over the last 5-10 years and many companies are still struggling to fill the gaps. So how can manufacturing companies make the most of the skills they have and boost productivity and output by other means?

According to a report by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills, around 22% of job vacancies in England are so-called “skills shortage” vacancies. As the economy has recovered since the crash of 2009, this number has more than doubled.

For manufacturers, the skills crisis is even worse than the national data suggests. The Engineering Employers Federation (EEF) industry organisation reports that four out of five manufacturers are experiencing recruitment difficulties and two-thirds of those say this is because candidates lack technical skills.

The British Chamber of Commerce’s president, Nora Senior, has a stark warning for UK businesses: “Skills will decide who wins and who loses in a 21st-century economy.” As the economy continues to improve, competition for skilled workers will become even more intense.

There are further challenges for manufacturers; as the product mix grows, so too does the complexity of allocating people with the right skills to different activities or products. Ensuring that workers only address the tasks that they are trained for can be onerous in terms of supervision. In some sectors, such as pharmaceuticals, allocating trained specialists to specific tasks can be a matter of compliance and the cost of a manufacturing failure can be extremely high.

Improving manufacturing skills

So how can manufacturers address this acute shortage of talent? Businesses that need to fill job roles must plan early and take a strategic approach to recruitment. Companies that wait until they have contracts to fulfil before they start the recruitment process may find themselves struggling because of a lack of skilled staff.

There is evidence that some employers are circumventing the shortage by recruiting at a skills level above the requirements of the job. This approach may result in also having to pay rates above the true rate for the position. Overqualified candidates may also look to progress to other roles once they have gained experience, leaving the employer with another expensive recruitment problem to solve.

Investing in training for existing staff is another way to plug the skills gap. However, recent research reveals that businesses have, on average, actually reduced the amount spent annually on training their staff from £1,680 per employee in 2011 to £1,590 in 2013.  This reluctance to invest in people through skills training will only exacerbate the problem.

For some businesses, the answer lies with the youth of today. A recent poll of conference attendees shows a high level of support (44%) for recruiting and training apprentices as manufacturers seek to improve their skills base, alongside up-skilling and retraining existing employees (29%).

Up-skill your workforce

For many businesses, the most pragmatic approach may be to train their workforces and new recruits so that they are equipped with the skills they need to do their jobs. Recruiting staff is an expensive process, even if you can find people with the right skills.

Fortunately, manufacturing technology can help to facilitate ‘up-skilling’ in a number of ways. For example, businesses that use MESTEC’s manufacturing software are able to reduce the risks normally associated with employing people with a lower skill level by providing proactive guidance of manual-intensive tasks, by directing the operator to follow sequential steps.

By capturing step-by-step instructions on screen, even relatively inexperienced workers can be guided through complex processes using explicit instructions, including diagrams, drawings, videos, etc while using questions that require a response to confirm that the operator has properly executed a task.

Another way to use MESTEC’s software to aid training is by capturing the process that your most productive or skilled worker follows and sharing it with others executing the same task using the on-screen step-by-step instructions. Real-time measurement and feedback through management dashboards can quickly highlight poor productivity, which supervisors can address by observing or talking to individual operators. Problematic steps in the process can be further broken down if necessary to simplify and overcome bottlenecks.

This approach helps to reduce the cost of training, enabling the acquisition of new skills ‘on the job’. MESTEC clients have successfully used the manufacturing system to train people with lower levels of skills that they have recruited from other industries, bringing them up to the required level of competence quickly and efficiently. Manufacturers can even configure MESTEC to check that the operator has the appropriate skill certification, is using appropriate tools or safety equipment before allowing them to proceed with the job.

MESTEC’s manufacturing software enables large companies to track hundreds of different skills and certifications, which may expire at various times, and be required in combinations for different jobs. MESTEC ensures that workers only work on what they are currently certified to do, which is good for quality, safety and auditable compliance.

Continuous improvement cycle

At a macroeconomic level, addressing the skills crisis will be a long-term exercise, requiring action from government, industry and the education sector. Meanwhile, manufacturers need to address their immediate recruitment needs, which in many cases will require new and innovative thinking, as well as investment in people, apprentices and technology.

MESTEC’s manufacturing system is helping companies to rapidly up-skill their workforces and to recruit and re-train workers with quite different skill sets. Adopting MESTEC’s innovative technology, which is fast to set up and has a low cost of ownership, can help to bridge the skills gap.

Ready to find out more?

Please contact us as we would be delighted to discuss your manufacturing challenges and demonstrate how our rapid, low-risk solution could bring major cost savings and performance improvements to your business.