Skills development in manufacturing: addressing the COVID crisis and beyond

Keith Butler | 24 July 2020

NSCG has worked with a wide variety of manufacturing businesses over the last 40 years and remains a flag bearer for the sector. We recently spent time with Colin Gordon, a senior director with extensive experience within education and manufacturing, talking about the impact of COVID-19 on training and skills development in industry, and the importance of manufacturing to the UK’s long-term prosperity.

Colin began by expressing concern that the manufacturing sector has been seen as the ‘poor relation’ in the UK over recent times, impacting its attractiveness to entry level workers. Whilst the COVID-19 pandemic has had a devastating and terrible impact on people’s lives, one positive thing has been the enhanced profile manufacturing now has in the UK. People increasingly see the value of having domestic capability and the ability to not only manufacture and assemble in the UK but also to have our own local supply chain. Colin sees this as the silver lining to the current pandemic that could kick-start both support from the government and also interest from young people to join the sector, leading to the resurgence of manufacturing as a vital part of our economy in the years ahead.

However, whilst recognition of the importance of local manufacturing is positive, the impact of the current crisis on training and skills development is not. Many manufacturers are struggling to pay their staff and keep their heads above water: indeed, for many businesses just being around when things go back to ‘normal’ is the over-riding priority. As such, the emphasis has moved from longer term training and staff development to reducing costs, preserving cash and generating revenue in line with short term demand.

Companies have stopped taking on apprentices, and Colin pointed out recent statistics showing that there has already been an 80% reduction in apprentices being engaged. This is despite a raft of Government initiatives – i.e. furloughed apprentices can carry on training as long as they don’t generate income or carry out other work.

As we emerge from the crisis, organisations will be considering how they can take advantage of new situations and operate in different ways. This will include adopting new technologies to improve efficiencies and, in some cases, supplying such technologies to other organisations and new markets.

But changes have also had to be made to training delivery. Training delivery within manufacturing was poorly prepared for the impact of the virus and had previously not seriously considered alternatives to classroom training. As such, there will undoubtedly be an increase in the use of technology-driven training including digital and online delivery as well as incorporating emerging learning opportunities through AI and augmented and virtual reality moving forward.

So, does that mean the end to classroom-based training? Colin thinks not and that it still has an important part to play in providing an effective blended training experience. There has been, and will continue to be, a need to look at how individuals learn most effectively and the most reliable delivery method of achieving this. Some learning is best carried out in a physical group, where peer-to-peer learning through interactivity, discussion, and group exercises are important. Additionally, it can be challenging to continue to be fully engaged in technology-based training as it requires more intense concentration and focus, and you miss the social interaction and engagement with your tutor and fellow learners.

There is also a risk that the way a lot of training has been delivered during the pandemic (often last minute and via video conferencing tools such as Zoom) will have an impact on its long-term effectiveness. Whilst this was a needs-must approach, and very welcome due to the circumstances, it ought to be considered when looking at longer term skills development strategies. Technology-led training can be effective, but it needs to be thought through, planned, and delivered with the same level of detail and attention as has previously been the case with more traditional methods.

If the recession is as bad as some forecasts are predicting, this could have a long-term detrimental impact on investment in training. Companies that survive will then need to look at their market, what they are selling, and how they will be manufacturing it before they can determine the skills they need to do so effectively.

So, what role can the Government play in this? Manufacturing covers a relatively small part of the UK economy but it has been shown throughout the pandemic to be really important. If we want a more robust and long-term sustainable UK manufacturing sector, we need to invest in it so that we are better prepared both for any future economic challenges and as a basis for sector growth and subsequent career pathways and opportunities. We also need to look at areas such as how technology in different sectors can be utilised in manufacturing to reduce costs and improve efficiency, and then look at the skills required and the most effective ways people can be trained.

Areas we need to look at from a macro level include:

  • How do we make sure that career opportunities in manufacturing are shown to be exciting and valuable, and remove the traditional view and perspective?
  • How do we address the challenges of reliance on overseas suppliers and transportation infrastructures and create a viable home-based supply chain?
  • How can technology be used effectively? How can we find better ways of showcasing and cascading manufacturing innovations to all parts of the sector and raise everyone’s level at the same time?

Now that the country is taking steps to move out of lockdown we are seeing further pressure on the government to support skills and sectors that have been identified as critical over the past few months, with many MPs lobbying the government to support the manufacturing sector. On 15th July, a cross party group of MPs and business leaders published an open letter to the Prime Minister calling on him to back manufacturers to lead Britain’s economic recovery and to ask him to ensure that a significant amount of the £600 billion pledged by the government on major infrastructure contracts is awarded to British firms, something they feel should be easier post-Brexit.

Added to this is the fact that the recent mini-budget introduced initiatives to help stimulate manufacturing jobs and skills, including a £2bn Kickstart job creation scheme aimed at encouraging 16-24 year olds into work. The Chancellor is also investing £111m to triple the number of traineeships, with businesses offered £1,000 for each trainee they take on (although the grant will be capped at 10 jobs per business). Additionally, businesses will receive up to £2,000 for every new apprentice under 25 they hire and £1,500 for every new apprentice above 25, along with an extra £32m in funding for the National Careers Service (which is expected to benefit around a quarter of a million young people).

These initiatives are very welcome in enticing young people to enter and remain in the sector through training and apprenticeships and can certainly deliver longer term benefits. We need to be mindful, however, of other issues such as reskilling of older workers or developing skills pathways to help prepare our young people with the skills for future jobs which may not yet have been defined.

In conclusion, the crisis has demonstrated to the wider public how exposed we might be if the manufacturing sector declines any further. If we want to be able to stand on our own feet, we need a new manufacturing sector based on effective deployment of technology, with a continuous stream of exciting young talent equipped with the mindset and skills to deliver the future.

Keith Butler is a consultant in our executive search team. If you are in a business looking at how to put together and implement a training or skills development strategy or review your current plans, please get in touch.

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