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InterAct Blog

Rethinking manufacturing: It is everything, everywhere, all at once

In a world where perceptions shape industries and policies, understanding the narrative surrounding manufacturing is crucial. InterAct has recently published a report which analyses the perceptions of manufacturing in the United Kingdom and compares it with six other countries.

The report “How to make manufacturing charming again? It is everything, everywhere, all at once”, authored by researchers from Aston University and the University of Cambridge, examines the factors that influence these perceptions and tracks how the UK public’s perception has evolved over time.

The aim of the report is to support InterAct research on the future of manufacturing by providing insights into attitudes to manufacturing and industrial strategies, and how manufacturing is discussed in other countries, particularly where digital technologies have been adopted.

Public perceptions of manufacturing across countries and over time

Although governments remain hesitant to explicitly champion “industrial policy”, the renewed commitment to manufacturing, as evidenced in the UK’s Advanced Manufacturing Plan, underscores its pivotal role in national economies which is increasingly acknowledged by policymakers.

The multi-country review, encompassing the UK, Canada, Germany, Singapore, South Korea, Switzerland, and the US, revealed more positive perceptions of manufacturing in Germany and the US compared to the UK. However, perceptions within the UK have shown improvement. In 2001, the British public believed that the country could thrive without manufacturing. In contrast, by 2023, 93% of the public believe that the manufacturing industry is essential to economic growth and resilience.

Across countries, including the UK, a consistent trend persists; younger people exhibit the least interest in pursuing careers in manufacturing. The prevailing perception, widely held among teenagers and young adults, is that the industry is predominantly male and lacking diversity compared to other sectors. Additionally, manufacturing is perceived as being poorly paid, repetitive, and not requiring high-skilled labour. These misconceptions pose significant challenges in attracting new talent to consider the manufacturing sector as a viable and rewarding career path.

Understanding the policy and perception nexus

Industrial and innovation policies play a significant role in shaping public perceptions, which can sometimes differ from reality. Terms like “advanced manufacturing” increasingly highlight the high-tech nature of the industry. National strategies also underscore manufacturing’s role in economic growth, innovation, and regional development.

Women tend to be underrepresented in manufacturing, especially in high-tech industries. For instance, in the UK, women account for 26% of the manufacturing workforce, and their representation is even lower in high-tech sectors such as automotive and aerospace. However, gender disparities within the sector remain largely unaddressed across policies, reflecting a notable blind spot.

Megatrends reshaping manufacturing

Megatrends reshaping manufacturing, such as environmental sustainability and digitalisation, persist as top priorities in industrial and innovation strategies. The interrelation of such megatrends is also becoming an area of interest in policy making. In addition, the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and geopolitical tensions have led to an increased emphasis on resilience, national security, value chain reconfiguration, and technological sovereignty.

These shifts in priorities and the continued focus on digitalisation and environmental sustainability have broadened the scope of activities and value chain segments within manufacturing. Notably, there is a growing emphasis on areas such as design and recycling, and the blurring boundaries between manufacturing and services.

Addressing challenges and charting a new path

This latest InterAct report highlights the evolving perception of manufacturing, emphasising the intrinsic link between policy and public perspectives. It highlights manufacturing’s multifaceted role in economic growth, innovation, and social inclusion, while also indicating pathways for improvement.

The report provides four recommendations in moving forward:

  1. Systematic collection of data (yearly or every 2 years) about how the public perceives manufacturing and the role of the digital and green transformations in shaping perceptions.
  2. Leveraging the manufacturing observatory, outlined in the UK Advanced Manufacturing Plan, to constantly monitor policy developments across different contexts. This includes how manufacturing and related terminologies are defined and portrayed.
  3. Setting measurable targets and initiatives aimed at enhancing diversity in manufacturing.
  4. Providing education and career information about manufacturing from the early stages.
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Report Resources

Perceptions of Manufacturing: How to make manufacturing charming again?

Overview

This report presents insights into how manufacturing is perceived, the factors shaping this perception, and how this perception has evolved in the last decade. The findings draw upon a systematic review of academic, grey and policy literature across seven countries: the United Kingdom (the UK), Canada, Germany, Singapore, South Korea, Switzerland and the United States (the US).

The report is the main output of the InterAct-funded project “How to make manufacturing charming again? It is everything, everywhere, all at once”. The aim of the report is to support InterAct research on the future of manufacturing on an international scale by providing insights into attitudes to manufacturing and industrial strategies, and how manufacturing is discussed in other countries, particularly where digital technologies have been adopted.

This research was conducted by Dr. Guendalina Anzolin (IfM, University of Cambridge), Dr. Jennifer Castañeda–Navarrete (IfM, University of Cambridge) and Dr. Dalila Ribaudo (Aston University). 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].

For further discussions or potential collaborations, please contact Jennifer Castañeda–Navarrete or Dalila Ribaudo.

Download “Report - UK and international perceptions of manufacturing”

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InterAct Blog

Manufacturing a better future – exploring disability inclusive digital manufacturing

In 2021 Make UK1 outlined the need for manufacturing to attract skilled workers from all sections of society acknowledging the continuing challenges of the lack of diversity in the workforce. However, the current focus in manufacturing policy and practice on equality and diversity has been limited to gender and ethnic diversity. Although almost a quarter (23%) of the UK working age population are disabled2, the industry has lacked a real interest in the inclusion of disabled people.

The employment gap between disabled and non-disabled people has also remained consistently high at around 30% for the past 10 years, with a pay gap of almost 20% lower for disabled workers compared with non-disabled workers3. Moreover, in the UK, 32% of disabled people do not have basic digital skills4 and those with multiple disabilities are the most digitally disadvantaged. They often face barriers in basic access to the technology such as connection to Wi-Fi-network or finding and opening applications on their devices.

This inaccessibility of technology, together with rapidly growing digital capabilities, is exacerbating the digital divide between disabled and non-disabled people. There is also a strong business case to include more disabled people into work for innovation through diverse workforce. We know that diversity and inclusion have positive effect on firms’ productivity, innovativeness or quality5, so why has this been largely ignored by manufacturers?

Recent research6,7 found that efforts to improve the suitability of industrial manufacturing workstations or the use of Industry 4.0 technologies for disabled people have still been superficial, favouring the inclusion of workers with milder disabilities and missing the complex interaction between the socio-technical aspects of inclusion. Our research explores how digital technologies, alongside an inclusive managerial mindset and accessible business practices, can create inclusive digitalisation in manufacturing.

Our project, ‘Manufacturing a Better Future – exploring disability inclusive digital manufacturing’, embodies the principles of socio-technical systems view where the benefits of the new technology are optimised alongside the humanisation of work, by looking into how the technological and social aspects interact and emerge together. This approach is closely in line with the social model of disability8. Based on this view, it is often the social barriers such as inaccessible physical environments, the attitudes (prejudice and discrimination) and the inflexibility of organisational procedures and practices that exclude disabled people from work, rather than medical conditions.

At the end of this project, we propose that we will have a greater understanding of how the digital inclusion divide, as well as the disability employment gap, can be narrowed through the inclusion of disabled people into the manufacturing ecosystem.


References
  1. Make UK (2021) UK manufacturing diversity & inclusion guide https://ktn-uk.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/11/KTN_Made-Smarter_UK-Manufacturing-Diversity-and-Inclusion-Guide.pdf?=MadeSmarterUK
  2. Scope (2022) https://www.scope.org.uk/media/disability-facts-figures/
  3. Together Trust (2023) https://www.togethertrust.org.uk/news/explaining-disability-employment-gap
  4. Lloyds (2021) Essential Digital Skills Report 2021, https://www.lloydsbank.com/assets/media/pdfs/banking_with_us/whats-happening/210923-lb-essential-digital-skills-2021-report.pdf
  5. Chaudhry, I. S., Paquibut, R. Y., & Tunio, M. N. (2021). Do workforce diversity, inclusion practices, & organizational characteristics contribute to organizational innovation? Evidence from the UAE. Cogent Business & Management, 8(1), 1947549.
  6. Teixeira, E. S., & Okimoto, M. L. L. (2018). Industrial Manufacturing Workstations Suitability for People with Disabilities: The Perception of Workers. In Advances in Ergonomics in Design: Proceedings of the AHFE 2017 International Conference on Ergonomics in Design, July 17− 21, 2017, The Westin Bonaventure Hotel, Los Angeles, California, USA 8 (pp. 488-497). Springer International Publishing.
  7. Mark, B. G., Hofmayer, S., Rauch, E., & Matt, D. T. (2019). Inclusion of workers with disabilities in production 4.0: Legal foundations in Europe and potentials through worker assistance systems. Sustainability, 11(21), 5978.
  8. Oliver, M. (2013). The social model of disability: Thirty years on. Disability & society, 28(7), 1024-1026.
Categories
Report Resources

The potential of coworking spaces to contribute to geographically distributed manufacturing activity and regional levelling up in the UK

Overview

Working from home, or telework, has been rising in the past 20 years, but large-scale adoption of this practice was never really embraced by the majority of UK employers. In March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic ‘flicked a switch’ overnight, and all workers who were able to work remotely were compelled and facilitated to do so, through digital technologies.

Whilst many people who worked from home during the pandemic, many others found themselves with a lack of appropriate workspace, or experienced a sense of social isolation. As the pandemic subdued, patterns of work have evolved into more complex patterns of hybrid working.

The benefits and disadvantages of working remotely remain in this dichotomy of place – home or the office – yet new workspaces, such as coworking spaces (CWSs) offer a third option. Indeed, the growth of coworking spaces has grown significantly across the world since the pandemic, not only in cities, but also in the suburbs, towns and rural villages.

Other countries (across Europe and the USA) have recognised the potential of CWSs, to help deliver economic growth and develop places beyond their core cities. They have begun to develop explicit policies to support remote working from these places. However, there is a noticeable absence of this type of discussion in UK policy and the question is, why? Are they not popular in such areas of the UK, are they different to city-based CWSs, in what ways? What are the implications for the areas they are located in?

Our pilot study of CWSs in a number of provincial areas in England examined what CWSs in these areas look like, what they do, what are their governance structures and the potential they hold for raising entrepreneurship and business growth beyond core-cities. We interviewed owners, managers and users of CWSs; Chambers of Commerce, local councils, local enterprise partnerships. We made observations of a variety of CWSs types, business models and identified the range of their activities they undertook to support their local areas. We listened to how they were faring, their relationships with each other and other local bodies. Our findings are summarised in two reports. Whilst designed to sit as separate briefs, there is complementary in what they cover, and benefit from being read together.

The first report “The rapid rise of rural co-working in England: sharing experiences for mutual learning” is a briefing for industry. It identifies the activities undertaken across a range of CWSs and collates them to provide insights and suggestions to other CWS owners and managers about the best practices we observed, so that these might be considered by those who do not currently adopt them and strengthen the role of their CWS to its local economy further.

The second report “The potential of coworking spaces to stimulate local growth outside of major cities” is a briefing to local and national policymakers. It identifies more specifically, the contribution CWSs can make to various levels of community: the community within the CWS, the local business community around it, and the wider social community in which they reside. It also identifies areas in which the government could offer more support. The potential value CWSs bring to each level of community means they deserve to have greater attention from local and national policymakers as they grapple with how to stimulate local growth and prosperity across the UK.

This research was conducted by Dr. Felicia M Fai, Dr. Mariachiara Barzotto and Professor Phil Tomlinson (University of Bath). 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].

For further discussions or potential applications/collaborations, please contact Felicia Fai.

Download “Report - The rapid rise of rural coworking in England: sharing experiences for mutual learning”

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Download “Report - The potential of coworking Spaces to stimulate local growth outside of major cities”

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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

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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Future of Work Resources

Perceptions of manufacturing – survey findings infographics

The InterAct Future of Work team carried out a survey of 2107 members of the public to find out more about the wider perceptions of the manufacturing industry and manufacturing jobs. Their early findings have been summarised in a series of infographics available for download below, and explored further in a series of blogs from Dr. Robert Stewart.

This work was conducted by Dr. Robert Stewart, Professor Colin Lindsay and Professor Jillian MacBryde (University of Strathclyde). 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].

For further discussions and information about this research, please contact Robert Stewart.

Download “Perceptions of manufacturing - survey findings infographics”

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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’.

Categories
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)

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