GTP21: Attracting and engaging talent in the manufacturing sector

Shakespeare Martineau

This blog post has been produced for the Greater Birmingham Chambers of Commerce as part of the 2021 Growth Through People campaign.

Growth Through People is the Chamber’s annual campaign aiming to help local firms boost productivity and grow through improved leadership and people management skills. In 2021 this involves 8 free online workshops taking place throughout March, and a virtual Growth Through People conference on 30th March. In addition, throughout the campaign the Chambers will be publishing thought leadership podcasts, videos and blog content such as this.

Thanks to our Headline Sponsors – Aston University, BMet College and the University of Birmingham’s Work Inclusivity Research Centre - all workshops are free to attend. Interested readers can find out more and register to attend Growth Through People workshops here, and the Growth Through People conference here.

Tackling the skills gap is not a new problem for UK manufacturers.  Attracting talent, particularly young talent, into the sector is a problem that companies have been grappling with for a number of years.  However, with Industry 4.0 now in full swing, and with the dual impacts of Covid and Brexit being felt across the sector, engaging the right people is more critical than ever.  So what can companies do to address the issue?

One of the root causes of the problem is a fundamental misconception of what a job in manufacturing really looks like.  Too often assumptions are made that the working environment is dirty and noisy, and the work repetitive and boring.  That may have been true in the past, but you only need to step into a smart factory to realise that the future of manufacturing looks very different to these tired old stereotypes. 

How can manufacturers tackle these misconceptions?  The key is to engage with young people, which sounds very obvious, but the degree of engagement is critical here.  Turning up at a few careers fairs is unlikely to cut the mustard.  We are increasingly seeing manufacturers go to great lengths to forge genuinely collaborative, long-term relationships with secondary schools, sixth form colleges and other educational institutions.  These are not quick fixes of course, and they require a significant commitment from companies in terms of time and other resources, but the potential benefits are huge.

Once these relationships are in place manufacturers are in the perfect position to engage directly with young people to break down the stereotypes and persuade them of the benefits of a career in the sector.  To this end Industry 4.0 poses both an opportunity and a threat.  On the one hand it ought to make it easier for manufacturers to persuade young people to consider a career in manufacturing.  On the other, those manufacturers who fail to embrace new technology are likely to fall further and further behind their competitors.

One of the other problems manufacturers face is a lack of diversity, particularly gender diversity, in the workplace.  Unlike the stereotypes outlined above, it is an inescapable fact that manufacturing is a male-dominated sector.  Numerous studies have shown that diverse workforces outperform those that lack diversity, so quite apart from being the right thing to do there is a strong business case for all employers to take steps to increase diversity.  The current lack of diversity may be understandable, but young people are likely to find a failure to tackle the issue unforgivable.  By forging close links with educational institutions, companies have the opportunity to explain exactly what they are doing in this regard. 

Finally, it shouldn’t be forgotten that these relationships are two-way streets.  Companies can (and should) use the opportunity to canvass young people as to why they might be reluctant to consider a career in manufacturing and then take steps to address these issues.  Stereotypes and a lack of diversity are just two factors, but there will be a host of other considerations and attempting to second-guess these will likely lead to failure.

Matt McDonald
Shakespeare Martineau