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National strategy needed to ramp up digital skills in manufacturing

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Nine in 10 manufacturers have benefitted from adopting digital processes during the pandemic, but the majority are worried the education and training system is not keeping pace with technology advancements.

This is according to a new report from Make UK, the manufacturing representative body, and Sage, which calls on the government to work with industry to implement a National Skills Taskforce and deliver a digital skills programme and lifelong learning opportunities if the UK wants to become a world leader in digital adoption.

Stephen Phipson, CEO of Make UK, said: “The last six months have shown that digital has been crucial in making it possible for manufacturers to continue production successfully against a backdrop of Covid – highlighting the need to ramp up digital skills within the manufacturing sector even further as companies move to build future resilience and boost productivity.

“Most companies put some of their workers on furlough but sadly the subsequent fall in demand has meant that some highly skilled people have gone on to lose their jobs. As the sector is fights to get its order books back to something like normal, it is crucially important that we do everything possible to keep hold of these skilled people who are currently unemployed.”

Their report, Digital skills for a digital manufacturing future, finds almost half of manufacturing firms switched to digital working practices within the first two weeks of lockdown. After just a fortnight of digital installation and planning, 94% had staff working successfully from home despite traditionally being set up for manual tasks.

Ninety-one per cent have benefitted from adopting digital technology during the pandemic, such as remote production and monitoring systems. A quarter say staff productivity had increased and 12% say it boosted production volumes.

Investing in digital training was seen to have given a competitive advantage to 87% of manufacturers, with 64% stating they had ran training to improve digital skills in the past year.

However, two-thirds do not think education and training provision is keeping pace with changes in technology, and the same proportion admit social distancing requirements meant some or all of their training had to be put on hold.

One manufacturer, Warren Services, continued to recruit apprentices this year despite the challenges the pandemic has presented. It told researchers that apprentices tend to be “digitally fluent” and can help increase digital capabilities in its business.

McLaren, which told researchers that its Formula 1 development process is almost entirely virtual, said there is a lack of understanding around what digital engineering needs.

“Today’s graduates have the capabilities our digital processes require but are without specialist industry knowledge. Conversely our workforce has the specialist industry knowledge but not the breadth of digital skills required. We, therefore, need an approach that acknowledges the new skills alongside the traditional approach, and to do this we need to find capacity within the training system to upskill our current workforce so that they can support the training needs of the incoming graduates,” it says in the report.

Rob Sinfield, VP manufacturing at Sage, said: “As two-thirds of manufacturers don’t think the education and training system is fit for purpose to help them adopt of new digital technologies, we now need to look at what support there is for them to bridge any digital skills gaps.

“Sage’s own research with Capital Economics also found that digital is key for businesses to remain resilient, with 67% wanting to invest more in tech to deliver performance improvements. So, there is a clear tangible desire from businesses to invest in digital with great benefits to be had. It is now up to the government and industry to jointly address the support needed to nurture and grow these skills to help reduce unemployment and strengthen our sector.”

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