Right here, right now: industry’s pressing skills requirements

Dr. Jacqueline HallThe government’s recently published 2019 skills survey highlights the need for a flexible and responsive engineering training system, set up to embed the right skills at the right time writes Dr. Jacqueline Hall, Head of Policy & Strategy at Enginuity.

The global coronavirus pandemic has certainly had an impact on how manufacturing organisations are gearing up about the future. A majority of leaders in the sector say that their organisations are purely focused at the moment on survival and are simply unable to think beyond that.

But Covid-19 is accelerating changes that were already gathering pace within the sector, with major implications for the skills that will be needed to take advantage of the post pandemic opportunities resulting from Industry 4.0 and net zero transition. That’s why the findings contained within the government’s recently published Employer Skills Survey 2019, although based on pre-coronavirus research, are so important to absorb and understand.

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The data is segmented by sector, so it’s possible to compare what’s happening in manufacturing with other parts of the economy. What we find when we examine the data is that manufacturing organisations are doing less training than employers in most other sectors, with an average of just five training days per employee per year. This is in spite of the fact that manufacturing has a greater incidence of skills shortage vacancies (those vacancies which employers cannot fill due to a lack of suitable skills) than every other sector (bar construction, with which it ties).

More than one in three (36%) vacancies in manufacturing are now skills shortage vacancies, with the proportion increasing since 2017 (when it was a still-high 29%). A key cause of this is a lack of necessary specialist technical knowledge amongst applicants, with manufacturing sector employers more likely than their counterparts in every other sector to identify this as a particular challenge (32% compared with 21%).

Change, when it happens, can come very quickly and leave whole clusters of workers badly exposed if they are not adequately prepared.

The good news is that we know which skills employers are currently in demand. Analysis of job postings shows that employers especially need applicants with teamworking and communications skills – over 10,000 engineering jobs were posted last month (September) which demanded the latter. Knowing what employers are looking for is the first step towards ensuring that the right training is available to meet their identified skills needs.

The thing is that job postings can only relay back information on what employers are currently seeking. The reality is that most of the current workforce is going to need to upskill, reskill or retrain at some point as old ways of working and technologies are replaced by new ones. We’re currently in the beginning stages of the Fourth industrial Revolution – but the lesson of the three previous ones is that change, when it happens, can come very quickly and leave whole clusters of workers badly exposed if they are not adequately prepared.

The spinners didn’t see steam-powered factories coming, but the power of new technology made the old way of making cloth hopelessly inefficient and labour-intensive. The good news for the spinners’ modern-day equivalents is that we now have access to a wealth of data which means we can predict which roles are liable to change or disappear – and, therefore, which workers are most in need of training which will ensure their manufacturing careers continue to thrive.

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Ultimately, we need a skills and training system which is truly set up to embed the right skills at the right time – one which is agile and flexible enough to respond to evolving employer demands. The new online Engage platform, developed in a matter of weeks at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, offers a taste of what is possible, with learning resources personalised to suit each individual’s own training needs. Combined with Enginuity’s expertise in data science, we are developing new ways of identifying transferrable skills to repurpose careers. For example, we have developed a prototype for the Cell and Gene Catapult ‘the careers converter’ to support the within vaccine manufacturing.

One day, the pandemic will be over and manufacturing organisations will once again be in a position to look to the future when thinking about their skills needs. Let’s therefore hope that the Prime Minister’s promised “lifetime skills guarantee” is just that.

Dr. Jacqueline Hall is Head of Policy & Strategy at employer led skills body Enginuity (formerly Semta)