Investing in manufacturing skills is just as important as equipment

Rewind to this time last year and the vision of lines, hundreds of metres long, snaking their way down roads and around the blocks of Centrelink offices is still etched in my memory. Fast forward to today and the lines are now of prospective employers looking for skilled staff. 

Much like the significant swing of the past 12 months, the pandemic has accelerated several new ways of working – Zoom anyone? It has increased other trends, too – one no more evident than finding and retaining skilled staff.  

Before the pandemic, Australia’s manufacturing industry skill squeeze was impacted by talent being enticed overseas, a growing mismatch between graduates’ skills and the industry’s need, and a general lack of consideration for what manufacturing offered as a career. 

Michael Grogan – State director, Victoria, Tasmania national director skills & training, Advanced Manufacturing Growth Centre

The closed international border that has largely protected us during the pandemic has highlighted our reliance on skilled migration – which effectively stopped, overnight. As a result, fierce competition for our finite onshore skilled staff has intensified. According to the ABS1, before the pandemic, manufacturing suffered from some of the highest rates of skills shortages in the labour market at just over 17 per cent. 

While there is no quick fix to skills shortages, there are some steps we can take now to ensure the industry has the staff it needs to grow and the first step is relatively easy. 

It starts with you. We need to ensure that everyone you know understands what manufacturing is today, the opportunities it offers and banishing the outdated view that manufacturing is commanded by sparks from withering large, dirty production sheds.  

The talent needed in manufacturing today, and into the future, is not just clever hands and a strong back, it includes men and women from diverse backgrounds with interpersonal skills, creativity, decision making, flexibility, adaptability, and information synthesis and analysis.

I highlight the last four because the pace of change in manufacturing is so rapid, that our future workforce needs to think differently than those before them. The advent of digital technologies has seen manufacturing evolve at the quickest rates since the industrial revolution and as such, so too are the jobs it sustains.  

I will labour the point, manufacturing today is more than production. The entire manufacturing process consists of seven steps: research and development, design, logistics, production, distribution, sales and services – we know it as the manufacturing value chain or the “Smiley-Curve”. It is the pre-and post-production activities that broaden the scope of occupations within the manufacturing industry. 

In the pre-production phase, Australian manufacturers are innovating, refining, and developing niche products that deliver improved performance. As a result, this requires more scientists, designers, engineers, and technicians to be involved in the early stages of manufacturing.  

In the post-production phase, Australian manufacturers are realising the value that can be generated in value-adding services, requiring marketing managers, skilled sales people, and client relations managers to deliver “manufacturing as a service”. 

With the manufacturing industry undergoing significant transformation, including diversification across the value chain and rapid adoption of advanced technology, it is little wonder that the makeup of the workforce is undergoing significant change as well. 

Employers and employees need to be prepared for life-long learning. This will enable employers to invest and reinvest in their staff, while staff up-skill or reskill along the way. As a result, the stickiness of an employee to an employer is crucial. As the headline suggests, skills are just as important an investment as equipment. 

This “smiley-curve” view brings with it opportunities to better engage with educational and training institutions to match curriculum and practical experience delivering job-ready staff. There are factors that are under the direct control of the manufacturing industry which could improve the situation – and it should start early, and start now. 

The early development of STEM skills is critical in future-proofing the Australian manufacturing industry. Think of it as a funnel, without a flow of an eager workforce into the mouth of the funnel, we will never cultivate the staff of the future coming out the other end.  

Many employers are taking steps to promote STEM skills and qualifications, and to engage with the next generation of workers. I would suggest you take the time to read how Sydney-based company L&A Service is working with local schools to develop talent early. The case study can be found in our recent Ten Ways to Succeed in Australian Manufacturing report. 

Diversification and innovation in manufacturing often depend on manufacturing companies collaborating with other organisations and research institutions, such as universities and organisations such as the CSIRO, to bring together different skills and experiences across the Smiley Curve – in just the way that AMGC’s projects foster collaboration. 

Manufacturers need to understand how the next generation of workers thinks, so they can better engage. In return, students need to understand what the manufacturing industry is all about so that it becomes a viable career choice.  

Education providers play a critical role to understand what skills and specialised traits graduates should have to enter the workforce and there should be better integration between TAFE and Higher Education. We must acknowledge the pace of change and advocate for a Nationally recognised “micro credentials” program to top up professional skills. 

It is heartening to see that skills and training at the forefront of the Federal Government’s COVID-19 recovery response. To ensure that the graduates of today are the skilled workers of tomorrow, Industry must have a place in the education system. We should be making it easier for our future leaders to access the education they want and to ensure that the skills they graduate with are the skills the industry needs.