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InterAct Blog

How can we attract the next generation of young talent into UK digital manufacturing careers by 2040?

Our exciting new project aims to develop a strategy to inform the rebranding of UK digital manufacturing to attract the next generation of talent into UK digital manufacturing careers by 2040.

In May 2023, the team members met at an InterAct research sandpit hosted by Loughborough University, which was held with the aim of developing research projects to accelerate the innovation and diffusion of Industrial Digital Technologies in UK manufacturing.

During the sandpit, it became clear that our interdisciplinary team shared a passion to make UK manufacturing a place that attracts, includes, and supports young talent from diverse backgrounds and mindsets. However, recent research conducted by MAKE UK reports only 2% of the average UK manufacturing workforce is currently below 30 years old [1].

Additionally, a recent InterAct 2023 survey on UK perceptions of manufacturing has found that younger generations identify UK manufacturing as an unattractive brand with uncertain employment prospects which is problematic for attracting ambitious and creative digital talent [2]. These negative perceptions in part could be attributed to older generational memories and experiences of physically demanding manufacturing jobs that fuelled the post-World War II economic recovery. Accounting for the rise of today’s digital labour market [3], these negative perceptions and experiences of UK manufacturing are likely to shape children and grandchildren’s career choices. This all adds up to a generational problem in UK manufacturing which is deep-rooted in the cross-generational experiences of what UK manufacturing once represented and the extensive and diverse career opportunities that are available today and will be realisable the future.

These preliminary findings paint an unsettling picture for UK manufacturing, especially when digital transformation has become a strategic priority for companies [4], industries [5] and countries [6]. At the country-level for example, if the UK is to pursue its levelling-up agenda and overcome its regional [7] and international [8] productivity gaps, then attracting young, digitally literate, and productive workers into well-paid, high-skilled manufacturing careers would seem an intuitive and rational approach. However, academic research continues to report that a major barrier for the digital transformation of older firms in various manufacturing sectors is the legacy of underperforming business models, inefficient workplace practices and traditional organisational structures [9], [10], [11].

These organisational legacies also raise the challenge that new digital competitors – such as the big technology firms and technology start-ups – are perceived to attract younger talent and the career aspirations of Generation Z [12] through creative workplace practices, new organisation designs and innovation cultures. 

Therefore, to address this problem, our project intends to co-create the most plausible future scenarios for rebranding UK digital manufacturing to help stakeholders attract the next generation of young talent into manufacturing careers by 2040. As our project is exploratory in design, we will interact with a range of policy makers, educators, employers, and university students to gather insights on how to attract young people into UK digital manufacturing careers by 2040. This will be conducted through six work packages that range from data mining four generations of manufacturing data held by the UK Office for National Statistics to interviews and focus groups with key stakeholders including business owners, industry bodies, technologists, policy makers, educators and students that are passionate about supporting the co-development of UK digital manufacturing.

We will also work with Strategic Innovation Ltd – a technology and innovation consultancy with a passion for sustainability – on a key output which will be the co-creation of a cross-generational map of peoples’ lived experiences of UK manufacturing. This will include both past and present experiences and will visualise potential rebranding opportunities for attracting the next generation of young talent into digital manufacturing careers by 2040.

By providing stakeholders with a visualisation of the future, our project will initiate  the development of a strategy for digital manufacturing careers that can play a central role in the UK’s economic and social development at home and overseas by attracting top talent into these roles.

If you or any colleagues would like to participate in our project, please contact Karl Warner, our Principal Investigator at karl.warner@glasgow.ac.uk for further information.  


References

[1] MAKE UK (2021) Manufacturing Our Recovery Through Inclusion (https://www.makeuk.org/insights/reports/manufacturing-our-recovery-through-inclusion)

[2] InterAct blog (2023) Future workforces: job quality & perceptions of UK manufacturing

(https://interact-hub.org/2023/05/23/future-workforces-job-quality-perceptions-of-uk-manufacturing/)

[3] Digital Skills & Jobs Europa (2023) The Rise of the Digital Labour Market (2022)

(https://digital-skills-jobs.europa.eu/en/inspiration/research/rise-digital-labour-market-2022)

[4] Sousa-Zomer, T. T., Neely, A., & Martinez, V. (2020). Digital transforming capability and performance: a microfoundational perspective. International Journal of Operations & Production Management, 40(7/8), 1095-1128.

[5] Ciarli, T., Kenney, M., Massini, S., & Piscitello, L. (2021). Digital technologies, innovation, and skills: Emerging trajectories and challenges. Research Policy, 50(7), 104289.

[6] Senna, P. P., Roca, J. B., & Barros, A. C. (2023). Overcoming barriers to manufacturing digitalization: Policies across EU countries. Technological Forecasting and Social Change, 196, 122822.

[7] Office for National Statistics (2023) Regional labour productivity, UK: 2021

(https://www.ons.gov.uk/economy/economicoutputandproductivity/productivitymeasures/bulletins/regionallabourproductivityincludingindustrybyregionuk/2021)

[8] Office for National Statistics (2023) International comparisons of UK productivity (ICP), final estimates: 2021

(https://www.ons.gov.uk/economy/economicoutputandproductivity/productivitymeasures/bulletins/internationalcomparisonsofproductivityfinalestimates/2021)

[9] Warner, K. S., & Wäger, M. (2019). Building dynamic capabilities for digital transformation: An ongoing process of strategic renewal. Long range planning, 52(3), 326-349.

[10] Jones, M. D., Hutcheson, S., & Camba, J. D. (2021). Past, present, and future barriers to digital transformation in manufacturing: A review. Journal of Manufacturing Systems, 60, 936-948.

[11] Ates, A., & Acur, N. (2022). Making obsolescence obsolete: Execution of digital transformation in a high-tech manufacturing SME. Journal of Business Research, 152, 336-348.

[12] Barhate, B., & Dirani, K. M. (2022). Career aspirations of generation Z: a systematic literature review. European Journal of Training and Development, 46(1/2), 139-157.

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InterAct Blog

Empowering women in manufacturing: Unlocking the potential of gender-inclusive digitalisation

We are at a crossroads, with the opportunity either to progress towards a more equitable manufacturing landscape or to deepen existing gaps. The digitalisation of manufacturing provides a chance to transform the sector into a more inclusive and diverse one. However, if we do not take intentional and proactive steps, this digital transformation could instead reinforce prevailing norms and deepen gender inequalities.

In order to inspire and inform initiatives towards a more inclusive and diverse manufacturing sector, Cambridge Industrial Innovation Policy developed a policy brief to raise awareness about the challenges that women face when participating in manufacturing, while making the case for a gender-inclusive digitalisation. The policy brief was a key output of the InterAct-funded project Women in digital manufacturing and was conducted in collaboration with the Women in Manufacturing Initiative.

In this blog post, we will share some key takeaways from the policy brief.

What is the gender gap in UK manufacturing?

Gender norms and stereotypes segregate women and men into different occupations and economic activities. Although women represent almost half of the labour force in the UK, they account for just 26% of all workers in the manufacturing sector.  Women working in the manufacturing sector earn 17% less than their male peers.

Women from non-White backgrounds and women with disabilities are among the least represented population groups in UK manufacturing. According to 2022 data, women from non-White backgrounds account for 15% of the workforce, representing just 3% of manufacturing employees. In the same year, women with disabilities, as defined in the Equality Act 2010, represented 9% of the people in employment; however, they made up for less than 1% of the manufacturing workforce.

Representation of women in UK manufacturing is markedly lower in skilled trade occupations (9%); process, plant and machine operatives (23%); and managers and senior officials (23%). In comparison, women’s representation is larger in administrative and secretarial occupations (70%), personal services (55%), and sales and customer service (49%).

Traditional gendered division of labour persists in manufacturing industries. Men mostly dominate the automotive industry, while the pharmaceuticals, textiles, and apparel industries have a more equal representation of both genders.

Unpaid childcare and household work disproportionately affect women’s participation in manufacturing. Women in the UK spend 1.7 more time a day in unpaid childcare than men and 1.4 more time in household work.  This traditional gender-based division of unpaid work means that women face larger burdens to participate in paid work, particularly in positions with little flexibility or involving uncertain shifts and locations.

Because of this situation, women are more likely to work part-time than men. In 2022, 23% of the women working in manufacturing were working part-time, while only 5% of men were working part-time.

Challenges faced by women in the UK manufacturing sector

We invited stakeholders from the manufacturing sector to participate in an online survey to understand the challenges women face to participate in the sector. Survey participants perceive that the prevailing non-inclusive culture, which continues to favour men over women in manufacturing roles, is the primary hurdle to the participation of women in the industry. This is followed by barriers in promotion and leadership, a lack of awareness and visibility of job opportunities, a lack of skills and training support and work–life balance.

What are some of the challenges preventing equitable opportunities and rewarding careers for women in manufacturing?

Note: Number or respondents = 63.The sum of the percentages exceeds 100% because respondents could select more than one choice.

Source: Women in Manufacturing survey.

The digital transformation and gender diversity in manufacturing

The digital transformation and other recent trends have had mixed effects on gender diversity in the manufacturing landscape. Over the past two decades, the UK manufacturing sector has significantly changed the distribution of job roles within its workforce. Despite labour shortages in roles such as process, plant and machine operatives and skilled trades, which men mostly hold, these positions have seen a notable decrease in their share of manufacturing employment.

Administrative and secretarial occupations, which are mostly held by women, have also seen a decline in employment rates, and this trend is likely to continue in the coming years. In comparison, there has been a substantial expansion in the shares of professionals and associate professional and technical positions.

Changes in manufacturing occupations, 2004 and 2022 (total)

Source: Nomis. Annual Population Survey – Workplace analysis

Changes in the skills required by manufacturing businesses are creating opportunities for women to enter the industry. Skills such as data analysis, forward-thinking and innovation are becoming more relevant, and a growing number of women from different backgrounds have these skills. This positive trend is compounded by the interaction of the digital and the environmental sustainability transitions, which are making manufacturing more diverse.

From 2004 to 2022, there was an increase in gender diversity in several manufacturing jobs. These include professional roles, managers, directors and senior officials, associate professional and technical roles, and skilled trade occupations.

Changes in gender diversity IN manufacturing occupations, 2004 ̶ 2022

Source: Author, based on Nomis. Annual Population Survey – Workplace analysis. For detailed definitions of the nine occupational categories please refer to Appendix A of the policy brief..

The way forward: How can we improve gender diversity in UK manufacturing?

Drawing upon established practices to promote gender equality, 10 practical recommendations are provided in the policy brief for UK organisations to cultivate a more diverse and inclusive manufacturing sector.

Businesses, industry associations and research organisations could:

  1. Collect and analyse diversity data. According to the Make UK ED&I Survey 2021, 47% of manufacturers are not assessing the status of equality, diversity and inclusion.
  2. Promote an inclusive workplace culture through initiatives such as awareness-raising campaigns, diversity and inclusion training and networking opportunities.
  3. Address gender bias in recruitment and promotion by using inclusive language in job advertisements, promoting diverse interview panels and candidate pools, and promoting mentoring opportunities.
  4. Support work–life balance by providing flexible working arrangements, implementing return-to-work policies, promoting the uptake of paternity leave, and offering on- or near-site subsidised childcare, among other initiatives.
  5. Share and recognise examples of best practice by creating spaces for organisations to share their experiences and establishing awards to encourage outstanding practices.

Government organisations could:

  1. Follow a gender-transformative approach in government support programmes. This includes setting targets for reaching women-owned businesses through support programmes, including women’s business organisations in the design of dissemination campaigns, and conducting gender-sensitive evaluations.
  2. Support research on gender equality and gender-disaggregated data collection. We cannot address what we do not know. A critical gap exists in gender-, ethnic- and disability-disaggregated data, as well as in understanding gender differences in the adoption of digital technologies in manufacturing. Bridging this gap requires both allocating funding to expand survey samples and supporting new research.
  3. Incentivise gender equality in research and innovation teams by continuing efforts such as Innovate KTN’s guidelines for inclusive design and by including gender equality criteria in research and technology fund allocations.
  4. Adopt a lifelong learning approach in training and education programmes by creating opportunities for women to develop skills at different stages of their lives.
  5. Ensure an enabling environment for improving gender balance in caring responsibilities. This may involve cross-ministerial coordination and collaboration with industry associations to develop and enforce policies that support flexible working, paternity leave, returning to work, and child and adult social-care provision.

The policy brief provides examples of how various types of organisations are implementing initiatives in these areas. These include from a medium-sized business pioneering flexible working in manufacturing, to comprehensive equality and inclusion strategies in a multinational company, and gender-inclusive approaches in digital manufacturing support programmes.

Promoting gender equality not only upholds a fundamental human right but also serves as a catalyst for improved financial and environmental performance, making it imperative to prioritise the increased participation of women in the UK manufacturing sector. The potential economic benefits, as estimated by Make UK, underscore the vital role of gender diversity in closing skills gaps and driving economic growth, potentially adding £7 billion annually to the UK’s gross domestic product.

Finally, while the policy brief provides insights into the dynamics of gender diversity in UK manufacturing, shaped by digital transformation and other contemporary trends, there are still many unknowns that need to be addressed. For instance, we have little understanding of how digitalisation is changing manufacturing workplaces and the challenges women and men face in adapting to and benefiting from these transformations.

Despite increasing commitments to narrowing gender disparities, gender equality remains secondary in importance, particularly in industrial and technology domains. This oversight has resulted in underfunded research and analysis aimed at addressing gender gaps. To pave the way for a more inclusive, innovative, and equitable future in manufacturing, we must collectively tackle these outstanding issues.

Download the full policy brief:  

This work was supported by the UKRI Made Smarter Innovation Challenge and the Economic and Social Research Council via InterAct [Grant Reference ES/W007231/1].

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InterAct Blog

Industrial metaverse for manufacturing systems: hype or future reality?

Our project aims to provide a coherent interdisciplinary summary of established knowledge from academia and practice on the application and potential benefits, barriers, and risks of a metaverse in manufacturing, mainly focusing on bridging technical and social insights.

Metaverse is expected to provide numerous benefits, particularly in production process optimisation, employee induction and collaboration. The most surprising research finding so far is just how varied the definitions of metaverse are. For our study, we define industrial metaverse as” a sensory environment that uses extended reality to blend the physical and digital worlds to transform how businesses design, manufacture and interact with objects”.

The existing industrial cases reveal technological barriers such as immaturity, lack of sufficiently strong communication networks and sustainability concerns. Other cases include cybersecurity risks like cyberattacks and data protection/privacy issues. The social barriers include jurisdictional and legislative difficulties, lack of cooperation between companies necessary to achieve interoperability and the need to change worker and user mindsets. 

Figure 1. Industrial metaverse as a new interface to the products’ manufacturing system

Although the data suggests immersion as a driving force of the metaverse[1], a full immersion can not be achieved without impacting the senses and feelings of a user. For example, in sensory marketing, similar impacts (experience stimuli) are used to trigger purchasing intention (Dewey, 1925; Schmitt, 1999), however, in the physical reality. Hence, we envision a similar trend in the digital world, where an industrial metaverse will extend the numeric and graphical data (such as reports) into coherent immersive experiences that will also affect feelings, Figure 2.

Figure 2. Industrial Metaverse as a combination of senses stimuli

Our conceptualisation efforts aim to prototype an industrial metaverse that activates several senses (sight, sound, temperature, and smell) and test how the extended experience triggers actions.

“Highly promising results are expected for the intersection of resilience and sustainability,” said Nikolai. “For example, based on the sensory marketing research that positions smell as the strongest attractor for purchasing decisions, we aim to virtualise the production conditions with sight, sound, temperature, and smell and enhance experience stimuli in the metaverse. We think it will better inform purchasing choice and support the demand pattern for clean energy, ethical production, and fewer emissions along supply chains.”

After the first results of the systematic literature review, we wish to explore the feasibility of the extended reality to shift decision-making towards more expensive but more sustainable decision-making along the manufacturing value chain[2]. Over the following months, our research aims to exemplify our concept using a scenario based on food manufacturing system for chocolate production. To do so, we will integrate the popular Augmented Reality platform with audio, temperature and smell generator devices to extend the experience for a policy-maker, manufacturer or customer making a hard choice between a cost-efficient vs. sustainable manufacturing system. This prototype will be used as a sensory dashboard for an extended representation of material sources, production conditions, carbon footprint and energy sources to better inform the stakeholder about the impacts of their decision.

“Carbon emission, working conditions, and energy consumption remain underexplored in the real world but visible in the metaverse. Hence, the metaverse can be used to raise awareness about manufacturing systems.”

Yet, It is unclear if being informed on carbon emissions in real-time will impact manufacturers’ use of their machines and shift the regulation imposed by policymakers. For example, would the smell of burning Amazon forests shift a consumer’s decision-making closer to more expensive sustainable purchase better than the printed carbon footprint number on the product package?

Figure 3. Industrial metaverse as a sensualisation of real-time data sharing   

The project has an open innovation philosophy, so we wish to create a discussion space around the metaverse application for manufacturing and are open to collaboration with the InterAct researchers and the industrial community.

To disseminate the findings, we plan to run a public event involving technology providers, industry, academia and stakeholders from the local public administration at the end of 2023.


References

Academic

Dewey, J. (1981). The later works, 1925-1953 (Vol. 3). SIU Press.

Schmitt, B. (1999). Experiential marketing. Journal of marketing management15(1-3), 53-67.

Petit, O., Velasco, C., Wang, Q. J., & Spence, C. (2022). Consumer consciousness in multisensory extended reality. Frontiers in psychology13.

Industrial

https://www.radiantvisionsystems.com/blog/creating-full-sensory-experiences-future-ar/vr/mr/xr

https://www.ericsson.com/en/6g/internet-of-senses

https://www.bitstamp.net/learn/web3/extended-reality-virtual-reality-augmented-reality-and-more/

https://www.designnews.com/augmented-reality/metaverse-will-engage-all-five-senses


[1]64% of industrial cases describe metaverse as a realistic user experience

[2] The team is considering to apply for further funding via the newly launched Impact Booster Competition of Made Smarter Innovation Challenge

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InterAct Blog

How co-working spaces can boost local economies

The routine of commuting five days a week to and from an employer’s office now seems somewhat old fashioned. Flexible and remote working have become much more common – and popular.

One global survey found that 68% of employees prefer flexible working. In the US, when given the option of remote work, 87% of employees take up the offer. It has also been estimated that up to 25% of workers in some of the world’s largest economies could work remotely for three to five days a week without any loss in productivity.

Improvements in digital technology and better broadband connections have made this drastic change possible. COVID then sped up the whole process, with remote working becoming a necessity for many.

Traditionally – and during COVID lockdowns – remote working meant working from home. But research suggests that much of the recent uptake in remote work is occurring in “co-working spaces”, where people from different professions and organisations work side by side.

These spaces provide flexible access to shared workspaces, with a range of facilities such as decent coffee, good wifi, digital printing and postal services. They range from basic to funky in design, some with natural features or social spaces equipped with table tennis and pool tables, boxing bags and PlayStations. Dogs and other pets are often welcome.

Since they first emerged in the US in 2005, co-working spaces have seen significant growth in both urban and rural locations. They have also been set up in tourist hot spots, catering for workers who wish to combine their jobs with travel on “workcations”, while others are designed for specific groups such as female entrepreneurs.

Some are run by large global companies while others are set up by local independent providers. But they are all designed for workers in search of a flexible approach, a decent location and an appealing working environment.

Part of this appeal comes from the social interaction they provide, reducing the isolation of working from home. They may also be located more conveniently than traditional places of work, reducing commute times and helping parents manage childcare commitments.

Commercial collaboration

The main feature of a co-working space is that the people who use it come from different backgrounds and are not employed by a single company. Such a diverse community can open up new opportunities for collaboration and the exchange of ideas – and even the potential for new commercial partnerships.

Indeed, some research suggests that co-working spaces are similar to “industrial clusters”, where groups of businesses in similar sectors are concentrated in a particular location, such as the Square Mile in London, or the area near Silverstone in England nicknamed Motorsport Valley.

Co-working spaces can be good for employers too, broadening their geographical reach. They may be cheaper than traditional office space, and provide a flexible option to scale up or down depending on economic circumstances.

And while most co-working spaces are designed for desk workers, there are an increasing number of manufacturing and engineering companies getting involved. Spaces which provide access to things like CAD software, 3D printers and lathes are particularly useful for small design or artisan businesses.

A role for policy?

This ease of access to tools and technology can encourage start-ups, or promote the re-emergence of small scale manufacturing in “left behind” places. In the US, for example, there has been a political push to promote co-working spaces as seedbeds of entrepreneurship.

In Italy, a similar policy in Rome has received the same kind of encouragement, while Ireland’s government announced plans for investment in 400 co-working hubs in rural areas to create a national network of facilities.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has also expressed interest in the potential of co-working spaces to boost regional development.

But so far in the UK the role of co-working spaces has largely been absent from any political party’s vision for developing regional economies. Instead, it seems to have been largely left to local authorities and businesses to take the lead.

In Stoke-on-Trent, for example, a new co-working space development has been launched in a partnership between the local government and private sector investment. Elsewhere, Devon County Council coordinates its own network of co-working hubs.

They have understood that the move towards more flexible working is surely here to stay. For many, it provides a sense of freedom and independence in their working lives.

Overall though there seems to be a lack of strategic thinking from the national government on the funding and location of co-working spaces. In tough economic conditions, this may turn out to be a significant missed opportunity.


Mariachiara Barzotto, Senior Lecturer in Management Strategy and Organisation, University of Bath; Felicia Fai, Associate professor in International Business and Innovation, University of Bath, and Phil Tomlinson, Professor of Industrial Strategy, Co-Director Centre for Governance, Regulation and Industrial Strategy (CGR&IS), University of Bath.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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InterAct Blog

Unlocking human insight: a summer school journey

The InterAct Summer School, co-hosted by InterAct and Atlantic Technological University, at the ATU Letterkenny, Donegal Campus was a truly enriching experience. As a PhD researcher from a Creative Arts background, exploring human insights surrounding digital technology diffusion, I found the program to be incredibly valuable in expanding my knowledge and identifying potential collaborative opportunities.

Throughout the summer school, we had the privilege of visiting prominent industry players like Coca-Cola Ballina and Tata Consultancy Services (TCS), delving into digitalization from both operational and strategic perspectives. We encountered examples of how digital transformation is having huge impacts on the ways these businesses operate and how they plan to develop their functionality in the future.

Attending the interactive workshops led by esteemed professors exposed me to cutting-edge concepts such as “IOT,” “Inclusive Growth,” and “Distributed leadership,” which broadened my understanding and inspired further exploration in my research.

However, the summer school offered much more than just academic knowledge. As a storytelling practitioner and pre-journalist, I make a habit of collecting feedback and stories while engaging with people. During the summer school, everyone I spoke to expressed fervent enjoyment, deeming it a “best ever” event. This was particularly resonant in this post-Covid era, where virtual gatherings have become the norm. The summer school provided an invaluable opportunity to reconnect in person, bridging the gap left by social distancing, masks, and hand gels.

Three key observations stood out as significant contributors to the strong bonding and collaborative culture we experienced throughout the five-day event:

Firstly, leadership through storytelling played a crucial role. Professor Janet Godsell and Professor Jillian MacBryde set the stage by sharing their personal journeys into engineering and manufacturing, inspiring authenticity, and trust among the participants. Professor George Onofrei with his wisdom gained from industry and academia, emphasized the soft skills: networking, resilience, and the importance of never burning bridges. These narratives not only fostered knowledge-sharing but also created an emotional connection among all of us within the organization of the summer school.

Secondly, teamwork was instrumental in our experience. For each workshop, we were randomly assigned to different teams to work on assignments and present our findings. During our industrial visits and sightseeing excursions, we demonstrated the spirit of teamwork through good timekeeping and looking after each other to ensure no one was left behind. Additionally, we formed an unofficial “social committee” to secretly collect signatures for a thank-you card for Professor George Onofrei and a birthday card for Anastasia Kulichyova

Lastly, the inspiration of creativity played a significant role. The warm hospitality of Ireland, represented by live music and Guinness, contributed to fostering a sense of togetherness. Our group ventured to local pubs, where the singer encouraged us to sing along with him. Our brave icebreaker Isaiah Nassiuma, a PhD researcher in Engineering, even took the stage to perform, creating a lasting memory. This spirited act was recorded and shared within our WhatsApp group, igniting more people to join in the celebration of Irish live-music-in-pub culture on day three, which coincided with Anastasia’s birthday. Dancing in a circle accompanied by fiddles and pop bands invoked a sense of trust and inclusivity, fostering an environment where creativity thrived. Such collaborative creativity reaffirmed the essence of our humanity, which may sometimes be buried as we grow older, but can easily be rediscovered when we come together.

As the summer school drew to a close, we found ourselves discussing ways to stay socially connected and eagerly anticipate InterAct’s next event. Even after returning to our respective cities, we continued to share personal news on WhatsApp and engage in thoughtful discussions on LinkedIn. Undoubtedly, the InterAct-ATU summer school stands as a highly successful event, with the true key to its success lying in “the success of people”.

In the digitalization era, where A.I. threatens human involvement in the workplace, I feel that I encountered a profound example of the power of human insight. Walking past a Turkish delight shop in the U.K., my mobile phone may instantly send me a pop-up advertisement, courtesy of A.I., catering to my preferences with collected data. However, it does not compare to the feeling when I receive a image of Pistachio Baklava, sent by my new friend Nader El Tibi from the airport, after our engaging conversation during the summer school gala dinner.  The sweetness of human insight is something that A.I might never be able to replicate. This is the priceless reflection I took from the summer school. 

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InterAct Blog

Toyota, you and a “human centric” digital manufacturing future

The Interact tagline was carefully crafted when Made Smarter and ESRC stumped up the money to make this network a reality. That tagline being: “pioneering human insight for industry” with the spoken aim to create a “network that aims to bring together economic and social scientists, UK manufacturers, and digital technology providers to address the human issues resulting from the diffusion of new technologies in industry”.

Yes, yes and yes again – this is what drew me to interact in the first place. It makes perfect sense when you think about it; in our factories, to make things, you need to bring machines, materials, and a method of doing it together with people. People are the glue that make the 4Ms work in harmony. And yet, walking the halls of Smart Factory conferences – the exhibitor wares on show are 95% things or data.

IoT, Sensors, robots, cobots, AI and data analytics are all critical, in tandem with people. We need to concurrently invest in skills to get the best out of these innovations, especially if we want a long term functioning society to manage this nascent 4th industrial revolution, without unrest and social upheaval.

Ponder for a second on any investment you make in a manufacturing business. The following are likely to be true:

Somebody has to research the market

Somebody has to talk to vendors

Somebody has to negotiate and buy it

Somebody has to commission it

Somebody has to programme it

Somebody has to maintain it

Somebody has to load and unload it during the shift

Somebody has to change the kit over or update the programme/parameters

Somebody has to respond to it when the Andon goes off

Somebody has to act on that

Somebody has to interpret the data that comes out of sensors

Somebody has to troubleshoot

Somebody has to problem solve and…

…a number of people have to find kaizen to keep you competitive.

‘Somebody’ might be multiple people for each of these activities. What is clear is that ‘Somebody’ needs to considered alongside the physical and data innovation that Industry 4.0 has to offer. InterAct are, comfortingly, working in that space.

This raises an important question about where manufacturers should invest in digital manufacturing. Investment always warrants head scratching as capital dollars/pounds/euros and yen are scarce, but thinking is free. The mantra I’d advise you to adopt underpins the model below. Invest where you SHOULD, not just where you CAN.

This requires pausing, thinking and coming to the CapEx table with a business problem to solve – low productivity or persistent specific quality issues for example. Having said that, the lean start-up principle of creating proof-of-concepts means we can place multiple bets (run trials) on various technologies, as long as we treat them like little experiments to learn whether they’re worth investing in further.

A smart way of thinking about all of this is the Toyota style thinking that I experienced on my last two trips to Japan. They think of it as a numerator and a denominator. The numerator represents the equipment you use to create value that your customers will buy. The aim is to improve the equipment work. The denominator represents the people working in the manufacturing business and asks whether we can improve people’s work.

Within this model, the categories to invest time and resources in are those that:

For the Equipment – “predict problems” or detect “early symptoms” of problems (both of these are likely Safety, Quality or Delivery related)

For the People – “eliminate low value added work” (like walking around checking things at the start of the shift or the admin burden of logging results/performance) or “reduce variation in standard work” (as an example, think 2 setters on opposite shifts changing the same machine from part A to part B, but the first setter takes twice as long)

The real gold to be mined is in the 2 bubbles that serve both. Digital manufacturing done well can “visualise issues” that are hidden to the human eye or our current data harvesting and sensor inputs. Rather nicely, if you listen hard enough to the data, it can identify the next, best kaizen to take you forward.

The idea is this; if you focus on both Equipment and People you’re going to open up a bigger benefit by improving both the numerator and denominator. That sounds very much like competitive advantage to me. As Eddie Jones (yes, the former England Rugby coach) said in his recent book on Leadership “The only reliable advantage we’ve got is to learn faster than the opposition”

InterAct is the best game in town, looking into the future to secure the role of human skill in our bright digital future. Get involved, you can either snooze your way to 2040 and then stand, blinking into the sunlight, complaining about the outcome. Or you can help shape and secure the UK’s place in manufacturing’s coming world order. Interact is moving into an exciting phase in 2023/24 where the research bears practical fruit. There are various ways to get involved, and you can keep up to date with all the latest news and opportunities here.

For more information about Sempai and the support they provide to employers, please click here.

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Why flexible working is part of the ‘future of work’ for manufacturers

While hybrid working stole the limelight during the pandemic, we’re hearing about increasing numbers of employers with frontline staff that are now creating greater flexible working for people who can’t work from home. 

The manufacturing sector is a case in point. Until recently, employers generally told us that flexible working just wasn’t possible where machine operatives and production lines were involved. And yet, we recently spoke at an event with InterAct at Strathclyde University about the ‘future of work’, and we heard from a range of manufacturing and engineering firms that are implementing different kinds of flexibility that support their people and their business. 

For example, The Alex Begg Group, based in Ayr, has moved production staff that handcraft luxury scarves and blankets on to annualised hours. This means staff work four-day weeks at the start and end of the year, and five-day weeks in the busier middle period. Staff benefit from longer weekends in quieter periods, and the business benefits from having staff on hand when they’re most needed without increasing costs.

Livingston-based precision engineers, Almond Engineering, haveintroduced more flexible hours. Staff need to be in work during the core hours of 9am-3pm but people can start and finish before or after these times as long as they work their 39 hours in the week.  

Energy solutions firm Aggreko is promoting more roles as part time, in part to retain older, more experienced workers who are key to training and supporting new recruits and apprentices.  

In each case there are mutual benefits as workers have more choice and control over how they manage their work and home responsibilities, which we know boosts wellbeing, while employers benefit from retaining loyal, engaged and productive staff, and employers are more attractive to a much wider pool of potential new staff. Flexible working is very much part of the future of work for manufacturing firms. 

If you’d like to create more flexible ways of working for frontline manufacturing staff, here are out top 10 practical tips. Many are seemingly very small changes but they can make a big difference. 

1.    Advanced notice of shifts 

If you can plan ahead and give people more notice of their shifts, including specifics about location if this varies, it gives them more control over the rest of their life. They can book medical appointments, arrange childcare, or just know when they can go for swim or take the dog for a walk.  

2.    Reliable, predictable shift patterns 

Creating a regular shift pattern also helps people have more control over work and life outside because they can anticipate shifts, and plan accordingly.  

3.    Know your team 

Understanding someone’s personal circumstances can help you create a shift pattern that works. You might not be able to accommodate everyone’s preferences all the time. But knowing what employees prefer means you can design rotas that keep people happier in general, and need fewer swaps. 

4.    Direct rota input for employees 

Have you ever tried letting your team put together their own rota? You might need to intervene if there are gaps. But you can be sure staff are getting more of the shifts they want if they’ve chosen them directly.  

5.    Easy shift swaps 

Make it simple for people to change shifts with a colleague if they need to. There are good apps that can help teams communicate clearly, view rotas and swap shifts quickly, as well as email and group messaging. 

6.    Small adjustments 

Allowing staff to make small, guilt-free adjustments when the unexpected happens – a broken boiler, poorly child or elderly relative who needs support, for example. This makes a huge difference to how stressed people feel, if it’s ok to make small changes to their working pattern to deal with something important happening at home. 

7.    Flexible hours and shifts 

Would part-time hours work for some people in some roles? This can instantly open up roles to more people, especially parents, carers and people with disabilities who can’t work full time. It can also save the company money by only paying salaries for the time you really need. Would two people job-sharing be able to deliver the same outcomes for customers? Or compressed hours (doing fewer, longer days)? Would a twilight shift suit some people better, or fewer, longer shifts? Think about what sort of flexibility could work for your teams, and remember ost people only want relatively small amounts of flex. 

8.    Small amounts of working from home 

Could some parts of roles could be done at home? Whether it’s admin tasks, some staff meetings or training. Even just a small amount of home working, where possible, can make a difference to someone’s busy week. 

9.    Talk about existing flexible working and wellbeing benefits 

Many companies have brilliant support and benefits that some employees have no idea exist. It’s an easy win to shout about what you already have. Make sure your staff take their leave entitlement, and understand what’s available to support parents and carers. Remind them there’s an employee network that might be helpful, that there are mental health first aiders they can talk to, or simply flag lunchtime activity classes if you have them. Make sure your people know all the support they can tap in to. 

10.  Train great line managers 

Managers who can communicate effectively and empathetically with their teams will get the best from them. This includes ensuring colleagues who aren’t always sat at computers have the information they need and the ability to share their opinion freely, as well was understanding changes in people’s circumstances and being open to sensitive discussions, such as people having too much work. 

For more information about Flexibility Works and the support we provide to employers, please visit flexibilityworks.org 

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InterAct Blog

Future workforces: job quality & perceptions of UK manufacturing

Has the impact of the global pandemic and spiralling household living costs changed what people in the UK value in jobs? If so, what factors are important for people looking at jobs in 2023 and what are the implications of this for UK manufacturers?

As part of the recent InterAct Making Things Work Survey , we asked people what things they would look for in a new job. We found that the top five reasons are an interesting mix of the usual economic and non-economic (i.e. the quality of work settings) suspects. Our top 5 job choice factors are: pay and benefits; well-being and flexibility; clean and safe work settings; contractual security and stability; and having an employer who listens and values people’s opinions (voice).

The prominence of these five job quality factors is probably not surprising. Apart from the legion of Health & Safety sceptics on social media, what manufacturing workforce wouldn’t prioritize a safe and clean working environment? What is surprising is that both pay and wellbeing are rated equally highly by our sample because in survey questions of this type, pay is usually out on its own as the main reason for job choice. This makes perfect sense for those of us who don’t live to work, or who aren’t strongly morally and vocationally wedded to our labour or employer. The importance of pay and reward and these other job quality factors should never be understated: especially in competitive labour markets with shortages of people and skills.

All of these top five factors play very nicely into wider debates about job quality and what we mean by ‘good jobs’. For manufacturers, understanding what people value in jobs and tailoring the recruitment messaging towards this should keep you up and running with the talent war pack. Good jobs are essential for successful recruitment and retention. As every decent manufacturing employer knows, if people’s working needs are being supported, the better the chances are that you’ll get the talent you need for the business, be more able to keep your ‘key’ people and get performance and productivity benefits over the longer term: ‘happy people, happy customers, better productivity.

In our sample, there wasn’t too much statistical distance between the top five factors. The relative prominence of wellbeing is interesting. Although wellbeing always been a central topic in conversations about job quality, the pandemic shone a unique spotlight on health at work. Wellbeing issues have come a long way from the days when it was mainly about masking or softly managing people’s problems, or just tackled by asking people to try whistling a happy tune.

Part of our new normal seems to be having a reset on long hours culture and achieving more work-life balance. The pandemic also showed us that discussing different ways of working was not only possible but operationally practical (especially non-production staff) in manufacturing businesses, though this remains a work in progress for production staff. Take a brief look across many manufacturers’ websites today and you’ll see that most companies do explain how they support people’s wellbeing.

We know about job quality, but what are people’s perceptions about what manufacturing jobs offer? We are only at a very early stage of survey analysis and getting under the skin of the topline figures, however we can examine pay as an example.

Unfortunately, for UK manufacturers, the great British public are telling a familiar tale. The good news is that most people think that manufacturing jobs offer comparable levels of pay and benefits to those in other industries. The less great news, however, is that there are just as many who are sceptical or unsure about relative pay rates in the sector.

These figures look consistent with what we know from the past about public perceptions of manufacturing jobs in the UK and the US: that while the sector objectively pays people comparable or higher than average levels of pay, this reality doesn’t carry through into public opinion . In other words, there still seems to be a reasonable gap between what most people would want in a job and what most people think is on offer in manufacturing. This latter point also seems to hold true across all of the top five job quality factors that we outlined at the start.

Therefore, an early message from our survey may be that many people are largely uncertain about the quality manufacturers are offering in terms of jobs: a persistent perception that will influence the attractiveness of jobs in the sector. Going forward it may require more focused attention from employers, industry shakers and policy makers if they want to remake the image of jobs in the sector.

Read the first entry in the the ‘future workforces’ series: ‘advanced manufacturing & Generation Z’.

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InterAct Blog

Putting the East Midlands at the heart of the future UK manufacturing ecosystem

The UK was at the heart of the first industrial revolution. Powered by coal, the UK was able to move from craft to mass production, creating new jobs, increased wages, and improved standards of living. Consumption driven economic growth was fuelled by huge increases in productivity. Key to the UK’s success, was its global access to raw materials, its local access to energy (coal), and innovation to develop the technology to enable the shift to mass production.

Little thought was given to the broader environmental and social considerations, with cities engulfed in smog, and children working in factories.   Over time, these issues were addressed but the long-term impact is only beginning to be fully realised.

We are now in the era of Industry 4.0, or the 4th industrial revolution. Initially a name for the German Government’s strategy, to reinvigorate German manufacturing post-2008 global economic crisis, the term has gained widespread popular appeal. At its core was the adoption of digital technologies to create the Internet of Things (IoT).  Over the last decade, with increased awareness of the environmental and societal impacts of consumption driven economic growth, it signifies a more fundamental shift.

There is increasing recognition of the need to decarbonise the manufacturing ecosystem if the UK is to meet its Net Zero 2050 goals. This is driving the adoption of low carbon energy sources, and more resource efficient methods of production. It is also creating a more fundamental change. United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 12, identifies the need for more responsible consumption and production.

There is a pressing need to consider new models for economic and business development that decouple consumption from production.  Business models have traditionally been built on ‘linear economy’ models where raw materials are mined, converted into components, assembled into products, that are used, and sent for recycling, energy recovery and land fill at end of life. As consumers have valued newness over utility, and manufacturers have sought to make products as cheaply as possible, the ability to reuse, repair and remanufacture products has become more difficult. 

The future manufacturing ecosystem is built on the principles of a ‘circular economy’. An economy where we seek to keep products in their highest possible value state, through reuse, repair and remanufacture.  A future where recycling is a last resort.  Digital technologies enable the more effective monitoring of the physical location of assets, their condition and usage. They can also enable digital payment, and technical support. 

Innovation is key to supporting the transition to a more circular economy.  It starts with the innovation required to develop the new digital technologies to enable the transition. Innovation may be more transformational and involve the development of new business models. HP Instant Ink is a great example of how IoT technology in home printers enables the provision of home printing as a service.

For a fixed rate, subscribers can print an agreed number of pages per month with a guarantee that they will never run out of ink. The ink levels are remotely monitored, and new cartridges sent in the post when required. Used cartridges are returned to be refilled and reused. These new business models are often run in parallel with existing business models (e.g., traditional purchase of ink cartridges) that may use innovation to improve the productivity and sustainability of existing manufacturing processes or supply chains. 

At the heart of the UK manufacturing ecosystem, the Midlands can lead the UK in creating the first regional manufacturing ecosystem, that is low carbon and supports the principles of the circular economy.  Using innovation to create new business models, products, services, and technologies that enable economic prosperity in a responsible and sustainable way.   Through the Made Smarter Innovation (MSI) funded Interact Project, Loughborough University are working with key stakeholders in the region to develop a 2040 Future Digital Manufacturing Ecosystem roadmap for the Midlands.   Be part of the change, reach out and start to Interact.

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InterAct Blog

Future workforces: advanced manufacturing & Generation Z

Forget some of the negative media hype and concern that you sometimes see from some social commentators and employers about Generation Z (Gen Z). Unlike us Boomers, Generation X and Millennials, Gen Z are the first truly ‘native’ digital generation, more tech savvy, nurtured on constant access to new technologies and more likely to be comfortable in the newly emerging worlds of digital manufacturing[1]

The high digital literacy of Gen Z offers many benefits for advanced manufacturers. They are more multi-skilled and able to execute (simultaneous) work tasks and roles across different digital platforms, while being more readily plugged into virtual and augmented realities[2]. As a workforce, they will be great for advanced manufacturing in the years to come; very likely to tell you that your technology and IT might not be as cutting edge (or confusing) as you thought. If this is not enough, given the right in-work supports – from ‘onboarding’ and beyond – they will allow manufacturers to create better value from problem solving, innovation, and creative roles using their digital toolboxes.

In many ways, the entry of Gen Z to the labour market is ideal for advanced manufacturers adopting new technologies, and their great potential to further change workplace people practices and business models. However, as in all happy(ish) marriages between the needs of employers and younger people’s lifestyle interests and skills, both partners may have some underlying issues that will make an effective relationship based on new technologies difficult to sustain unless they both work at it.

There should be no doubts about the high demand for digital skills in advanced manufacturing. Employers need to understand some key elements of Gen Z thinking and to build this into their recruitment and retention strategies. Ongoing staffing shortages, the seemingly blurring pace of digital and technological change, ‘quiet quitting’ and some issues with workplace upskilling have all helped to accelerate industry demand for digital and multi skilled workforces.

These changes have pitched advanced manufacturers into the ‘talent war’ to attract, retain and develop the most skilled and capable young people. Attracting and keeping the best talent, however, is highly competitive and many industries (including manufacturing) are reporting skill shortages and high levels of unfilled vacancies[3]. Very simply, manufacturers without the right set of people capacities (and practices to support these), digital skillsets, and multi-skilled workforces will struggle to capture and use those advanced technologies to help them compete and innovate.

These labour demand and supply issues pose some interesting questions about how UK manufacturers should be competing for Gen Z talent in terms of job quality. A downside? Well like Millennials they are very values driven and possibly sensitive to your image as an employer on social media. Image matters for the new generation. For advanced manufacturers, one major challenge is the problem with some of the wider UK manufacturing sector. This comes with some powerful historical baggage.

Manufacturing is sometimes be seen by young people in the UK and US as an old-fashioned industry, low paying and male-dominated, offering large numbers of dull, insecure, and dead-end shifts in factory jobs[4]. Forget those images you may have in your head about the emerging SMART factories of the near future, this legacy persists, particularly among the older population segments who remember it and whose opinions may negatively shape their children and grandchildren looking for jobs and careers in today’s labour market. They are not flattering perceptions of a sector looking to recruit ambitious and creative digital talent or even broaden its appeal among older or mid-career workers, or people in under-represented groups such as women and minorities.

On a positive note, these perceptions are very unlikely to match the reality of many or most modern advanced manufacturing settings, particularly in big multinational companies and those who‘ve adopted and transitioned into digital technology. These settings offer (less monotonous) more interesting, exciting, highly technical and financially rewarding work. The recruitment messaging needs to dispel the old legacy of your sector, show the augmented reality, the AI of the bots, the predictive and the multi-purpose data analytics, and whatever metaverse you can conjure.

Apart from showcasing exciting, innovative clean tech, what else should manufacturers be doing to better attract and retain Gen Z talent? There is no shortage of commentary on what Gen Z expect in the workplace, so let’s take three of the more important issues that often feature in wider discussions about them: values, diversity, and flexibility. Helpfully, all of these things connect with each other.

We know that an employer’s image, brand, reputation, prestige, mission, vision and values really matter in recruitment, commitment and retention. Its’ not just about pay, it really isn’t. Values make a big difference in competitive labour markets with restrictions on supply. Potential recruits and employee’s want to know something about your identity and values: how these resonate through your products, people practices, and culture.

Ideally, younger employees want to share in the positive impact and success of your business, be ‘proud’ to work for you and share that in their social media networking and posts. This means that the backstory (and the ‘future-story’) of who you are as an industry, sector and employer is a key part of attracting and keeping the brightest, the capable and the digitally skilled. You can be as sceptical (or ‘boomer’) about this as you like but realising the importance of the ‘image’ and what you stand for, and how you show and tell people your story is something that. For example, big UK-based multinational manufacturers who compete across international markets understand very well. It works.

Your values should set the tone for a whole series of complimentary policies and practices at work that help young people see meaning and purpose in their work. For advanced manufacturers, investing in people, developing their skills and caring about their wellbeing play very well to younger and early career audiences who will still be unsure about their place in the labour market.

A focus on Net Zero and the principles of the circular economy has a strong appeal to the wider social values of many young people keen on environmental messaging and actions around reducing waste and your carbon footprint. Employer values tell people what you care about: whether you look at your workforce as individuals and people; whether you care about their wellbeing and development; and whether you really are asking them to help make ‘useful’ products and have processes that are helping to make a more sustainable world.

Employer values and practices also feed into areas like diversity and being clear about your recruitment messaging. Why is diversity important? Well it isn’t about the numbers of women in your workplace, or those coming through the STEM pipeline. Research shows that gender diversity in manufacturing leads to greater innovation and profitability, and the benefits of having women in leadership positions are even greater. In other words, the implications of diversity (and more representative workforces) seem to be reasonably clear. The more diverse you are as a workforce and the more this is represented in the higher strategic decision making levels of companies, the more you will be likely to be able to harness these different views and experiences, produce better products more geared to different customer segments and better innovate than your competitors.

You can disagree about the need for diversity but the figures tell a different story. Manufacturers need to be much more proactive (and transparent) about equalities, diversity and inclusion at work, particularly when it comes to gaining ‘fair opportunities’ for career progression. Gen Z are more racially and ethnically diverse than previous UK cohorts and there has to be a bigger focus on minorities, and on women.

Only around two-thirds of manufacturing firms currently have an EDI strategy or even an intention to develop one and not surprisingly, minorities only make up 5% of boards and women only 18%[5]. Both groups still largely occupy supporting administrative and clerical roles, or in HR and marketing: far removed from key areas of senior management, making executive decisions and having a strategic influence in their firms. On these figures alone, you would be doing well to describe manufacturing as offering modern, equitable and progressive working environments. For Gen Z talent looking for employers who mirror their personal and social values around racial, ethnic and gender equality, these numbers will make depressing reading.

So how do you address this? At the very least, sense-check or independently audit the recruitment messaging to make sure you are maximising your appeal. In terms of the career progression of women and minorities there are also a few useful ways of addressing some of the internal cultural barriers that they face in moving into senior management roles: mentoring and sponsoring. To some these approaches are probably not as ‘bombproof’ as deciding promotions out with the lads on the golf course, but they are likely to be more effective in helping the business keep good talent.

One popular (post-pandemic) way of addressing the diversity issue concerns giving people greater flexibility at work, through re-designed shift schedules and working from home. Easier said than done for production staff than their non-production co-workers. There are certainly strong hints in the literature that greater flexibility and hybrid working (with some task autonomy) is very well suited to Gen Z workers. Perhaps too suited! Hybrid models bring positive wellbeing benefits for workers, allowing women to balance work and domestic schedules. However, we need to be cautious about visibility at work and that out-of-sight working from home does not translate into out-of-contention workers when it comes to promotions and rewards.

In short, there are sound reasons for believing that Gen Z will be ready-made for advanced manufacturing. To capture the benefits, advanced manufacturers need to understand this audience. They must ensure messaging, imagery and marketing addresses some of the more unhelpful legacy images of their sector, treat their own values and story seriously, and deliver on EDI and flexibility.

Read the first entry in the the ‘future workforces’ series: ‘advanced manufacturing & Generation Z’.


References

[1] Francis, T. & Hoeful, F. (2018) ‘True Gen’: Generation Z and its implications for companies. McKinsey & Company.

[2] Gomez, K., Mawhinney, T. & Betts, K. (2022) Understanding Generation Z in the Workplace. Deloitte US.

[3] For example, The Manufacturer (2022) We need a super solution for fixing manufacturing talent issues (https://www.themanufacturer.com/articles/we-need-a-super-solution-for-fixing-manufacturing-talent-issues/)

[4] For example, Deloitte (2017) A look ahead: how modern manufacturers can create positive perceptions with the US public. (https://www2.deloitte.com/content/dam/Deloitte/us/Documents/manufacturing/us-public-perception-manufacturing-study.pdf)

[5] MAKE UK (2021) Manufacturing Our Recovery Through Inclusion (https://www.makeuk.org/insights/reports/manufacturing-our-recovery-through-inclusion)