InterAct Blog

Will digital technology help Scotland’s manufacturers recruit and retain a more diverse workforce?

Professor Jillian MacBryde investigates questions around the impact of innovative digital technology on the diversity of Scotland’s manufacturing sector.

Earlier in the year I wrote a blog about the importance of diversity in the manufacturing sector. Diversity is about encouraging participation by people from different backgrounds, listening to different views and trying to understand others’ experiences. Inclusion (often talked about hand in hand with diversity) is about ensuring everyone feels welcome and valued.

In my earlier article I argued that diversity and inclusion can lead to clear business benefits including innovation and problem solving. A recent Make UK report suggests that manufacturers who embrace diversity and inclusion are 25% to 36% more likely to outperform their competitors in terms of profitability and performance. It is also a moral and ethical imperative that we are not excluding people.

Manufacturers in Scotland are dealing with significant change. The pandemic has changed many manufacturing businesses, and while some markets have been hit hard, many manufacturers are busier than ever. Meanwhile technology is also advancing apace, and during the past 18 months many companies have accelerated their digital journey. Recruiting staff is a major challenge for many manufacturers today, so more now than ever we need to be attracting a diverse population into the sector.

Diversity, inclusion, and wellbeing in the manufacturing sector are issues that the Scottish Government are taking very seriously, and I have recently been asked to join the Equalities and Wellbeing in Manufacturing short life working group. We know that we need to attract more people into manufacturing jobs in Scotland, we see the value of diversity and inclusion, and we also want to make sure that people are healthy and happy at work.

Wearing another of my hats, I am also involved in the UK government investment in digital technology in manufacturing through Made Smarter Innovation. This recognises the need for manufacturing firms in the UK to embrace new technologies and reap the rewards of the digital era of manufacturing.

One of the questions that I’ve been thinking about over the past few weeks is whether digital technologies will have a positive or negative effect on diversity in manufacturing.  I have been speaking with some inspirational people and asking this question. In this short article I hope to open this up for discussion.

The first thing I wanted to know is: do we have an issue with diversity in Scottish manufacturing? Often the conversation starts by focusing on under-represented groups or protected characteristics under the Equalities Act 2010 (age, disability, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnerships, pregnancy and maternity, race, religion or belief, sex, and sexual orientation). But for me diversity of thought is also important for innovative and stimulating workplaces, people from different educational backgrounds, different social groups, different experiences. This is harder to unpick using statistics!  

Let’s look at what we can see from the statistics, according to the Office of National Statistics the Scottish manufacturing workforce is 76.6% male, 98% white, 10.4% are classed as disabled and just 1.9% identify as minority ethnic. In addition, 36.5% are aged over 50 and 25.6% have a long-term condition or illness. 8.8% work part-time. (Annual Population Survey 2019, Office for National Statistics). So, to be frank, there is work to do in tackling diversity, inclusion, and wellbeing.

We need more information before we can really tackle some of the problems. Statistics themselves don’t tell us is where the issues lie. Is it that manufacturing just isn’t attractive to certain people? Is it that we don’t talk enough about manufacturing in schools and in the media? Is it that we lack diverse role models? Is there discrimination in recruitment? Is it that environmental factors such as pay, hours, etc., do not work for some people? Is it an issue of leadership? Or maybe flexibility? There are many questions that we are seeking answers to. Understanding people’s perceptions of manufacturing is something I am committed to investigating as part of the ESRC Made Smarter InterAct Network.

Is digital technology likely to help or hinder diversity in manufacturing? And what will the impact be on wellbeing? Digital transformation will undoubtedly bring changes in the workplace and in the labour market. New jobs will be created, some occupations may disappear, but mainly we will see changes to jobs. Technology will assist people with tasks and change the way we recruit staff and the flexibility we can offer. Digital manufacturing should open new possibilities, as well as offering manufacturers the opportunity to become more sustainable and flexible.

New jobs will be created. Digital manufacturing requires a workforce with a broad range of skills. I have said before in earlier blogs that it frustrates me that in the media talk of manufacturing is often accompanied by images of heavy engineering. Manufacturing itself is diverse and there are so many jobs in manufacturing, particularly in a digital environment, that do not require engineering skills – manufacturing companies need people to manage the supply chain, analyse data, plan production, design products, run their social media, along with all the other administration that is needed to run a business.

If we can get the message out there, that manufacturing companies need a diverse range of skills, then perhaps we would appeal to a broader range of people. Digital technology also helps us to become more sustainable – both through becoming more efficient in our use of resources, as well as in more novel ways of working. Sustainability, we know is something that drives many people to choose who they work for, so the more manufacturers can show their sustainability credentials, the more people might be attracted to working in the sector.

But what of the jobs that might disappear? A recent report from Abi Hird at KTN warns us to be wary of the unintended effects of technology. She points out that females and ethnic minority groups occupy many of the lower paid administrative and operator positions in manufacturing. If digital technology displaces these jobs, then there could be negative consequences for workforce diversity. This is one area we do need to watch as it could be at odds with what we are hoping to achieve.

On a positive note, industrial digital technologies should offer us safer workplaces with less human exposure to harsh environments. It could be for example, technology is better suited to do certain tasks, and this could free up humans to focus on elements of the job where they are best suited or perhaps take on other roles, that are potentially more fulfilling. It also opens up the possibly be more inclusive.

I know an engineer of advancing years used to jump in and out of machines, climbing ladders and crawling under small spaces in manufacturing plants. Today this isn’t something he really wants to be doing with his creaking knees! With digital technology and the use of sensors, he needs to do these physical inspections much less, and can focus on the part of the job that he really enjoys, solving problems. Similarly, there are many instances where robots are taking the heavy lifting out of some manufacturing jobs, making it easier for people with less strength or mobility.

Finally, before leaving this topic we also need to design our industrial digital technologies with people in mind. In the Made Smarter report, Abi Hird makes a special plea to innovators to think about equality and diversity when designing digital technologies. She points to issues with virtual reality, largely developed with men in mind where not only are headsets often too large and heavy for women but also there are depth perception differences between men and women (largely ignored by tech developers) that cause more women to experience motion sickness.

I would be delighted to hear what you think about the impact of digital technologies on equality and inclusion in manufacturing. In particular, what you think we should be doing to make sure we build a more diverse manufacturing workforce going forward.

2 replies on “Will digital technology help Scotland’s manufacturers recruit and retain a more diverse workforce?”

In my opinion diversity and inclusion can play a significant role in supply chain integration. It can be indicative of the problems associated with manufacturing, where are the shortcomings in performance and what does this mean for diversity and inclusion. It can serve as enabler to improved performance. Creating teams with the right skill set and different perspectives can integrate stakeholders, establish formal processes, improve flows in the SC and develop technology powerhouses (e.g. product platforms)

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