We sometimes need reminding that the generation of ‘baby boomers’ that came along after WWII was not a UK phenomenon. The same thing happened in America, too, with the same result – in recent years, huge numbers of highly experienced workers have left the manufacturing industry on reaching retirement age, leaving gaping manpower and skills gaps in the workforce. Such individuals have often taken with them precious, virtually irreplaceable operational knowledge, practice and experience. Smaller businesses have lost workers who are crucial to their business and perhaps even their survival.
A recent Forbes’ editorial pointed out that the pandemic has done little to help the situation. Not only has the scourge of COVID-19 resulted in even more unfilled jobs, it has “highlighted how those currently seeking employment lack the required skill sets.” Worse still, it has exposed the fact that a lot of young jobseekers are “disinclined to enter the industrial sector” because “many people don’t consider working in a manufacturing facility to be an honorable and well-respected profession anymore.” What an indictment. But can we claim the situation is really any different in the UK?
To remedy the situation in America, there has been an intense push for high school students to enter college programmes in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) areas, backed up with promises of big salaries and an abundance of exciting job opportunities.
The problems are essentially the same here in the UK, and so are the solutions. The fight-back starts with dispelling the perception that working in manufacturing is all about manual labour, poor pay and prospects and low social esteem. True, it may not be as superficially appealing as working in IT, but that is because we have not been very good at getting the message across. This is especially true in classrooms at the early learning stage; teachers need to understand, too. We must show what is on offer and mean it.
The manufacturing industry must take responsibility for reinventing its image and position itself as skilled, innovative, full of exciting and lucrative opportunities and highly valued. If the UK is to rebuild a truly skilled workforce, retraining existing staff to keep pace with advances in technology is also vital, as is creating attractive apprenticeship schemes and working with universities to attract graduate trainees. As the man from Forbes so rightly said: “Ultimately, if a skilled workforce doesn’t exist, manufacturing doesn’t exist.”