Upskilling the new manufacturing generation

Michael Sharpe, director of the Advanced Manufacturing Growth Centre speaking at Autodesk University.

As Australia re-invents its position as an advanced manufacturer, Steven Impey considers how the industry’s workforce will change to meet different demands.

At this juncture – if Australian manufacturers are going to embrace technological advancement on the factory floor – creating a workforce to compliment a flourishing industry is going to be important.

Enterprise centres across the nation are there to give engineers hands-on experience with disruptive technologies, whether they are digital, manual or operated by robots.

Needless to say, with the industry numbers bouncing back in small pockets, transferring traditional manufacturing into a high-value, cutting-edge generation of creation requires re-evaluation, retraining and reskilling.

As reported by Manufacturers’ Monthly last month, the Advanced Manufacturing Growth Centre (AMGC) is calling for a “massive transformation” of Australia’s workforce.

Michael Sharpe, the AMGC’s director who declared that the state of the industry is at “mission critical”, also said that there is a demand for workers, albeit the skills needed are changing with the times.

Sharpe mentioned that there needs to be a massive workforce transformation.

“Just imagine, by 2027, Australia’s manufacturing workforce will not only have increased in size but also shifted in its composition.

“[The question will be:] what did we do to contribute to the value of manufacturing, to increase skills and leadership and often exceptional sales and services to back up the performance differentiation?

“What actions and pathways can we firmly put in place to develop the highest skills required to meet those areas of greater added value?

“To create the necessary workforce change, we must inspire our young students to study STEM disciplines and pursue manufacturing careers. We need to make it inviting.”

Key “knowledge gaps” are apparent in various areas of the industry, according to Sharpe.

They include robotics and automatic productions, materials and composites, digital design, bio- and nano-manufacturing, micro- and precision-manufacturing, and virtual reality.

“That is all happening now and, for its path, the industry must make sure that graduates are connected to more advanced manufacturing opportunities,” he continued, “meaning the demands of these skills must increase.”

Research carried out by the Department of Industry has identified a shift in the manufacturing workforce, with the AMGC recognising a shortage in high-value manufacturing roles.

“Skills development and deployment relevant to the workplace are vital to the successful transformation of manufacturing into higher value-added services,” a spokesperson for the Department of Industry said.

“Recent work by the department has found that Australia’s workforce will need 54,000 new higher skill R&D and design managers in the next 10 years, while requiring 56,000 fewer low-skill production workers.

“It also finds that only four Australian manufacturing sectors are increasing their proportion of higher skilled workers at the rate required over the next 10 years.”

There are a number of educational initiatives that are helping to reskill workers and address skills shortages in Australia.

For example, the government has established an ongoing $1.5 billion Skilling Australians Fund, with funding prioritised to projects that will support apprentices and trainees.

A $60 million Industry Specialist Mentoring for Australian Apprenticeships program will also provide intensive support around 45,000 apprentices and trainees seeking to enter industries undergoing structural change, such as the automotive sector.

In addition, the $24 million Commonwealth Scholarships Program for South Australia offers support for 1,200 undergraduate, postgraduate and vocational education and training students to undertake state study, training and internships.

“In order to meet these changes and remain competitive against the commoditisation of many products manufactured in low-cost countries, the future of manufacturing in higher-cost countries such as Australia lies in moving up the value chain from production activities,” the Department of Industry said.

“These include high value-added manufacturing services for niche markets in global supply chains. Some 70 per cent of global trade is intermediate goods in global supply chains.”

Professor Graham Wren joins a manufacturing roundtable at the University of Technology Sydney business school.
Professor Graham Wren joins a manufacturing roundtable at the University of Technology Sydney business school.

The Australian Government’s policy focus is on enabling industry to succeed through differentiating its market offerings with a range of policies to encourage innovation and advanced manufacturing.

They also focus on the uptake of digital technologies and skills development to allow any sector of the manufacturing industry become “more productive, competitive and export capable”.

Professor Graham Wren, a special advisor to the principal and major projects director at the University of Strathclyde in the UK, joined a manufacturing-focused roundtable at the University of Technology Sydney’s business school to discuss ways Australia can optimise the future of its industry.

In 40 years of science and engineering, Wren has been a member of more than 30 company and research centre boards and has represented the UK Government on OECD and NEA committees.

Now an adjunct professor to the Faculty of Engineering and IT at UTS, he has also given evidence to UK parliamentary select committees and has sat on numerous government and industry committees.

“One of the challenges in a country like Australia – and to some extent the UK – if you look at a specialised industry, unless you are one of the champions or among the people at its forefront, it is quite challenging,” said Wren.

“Much of innovation works around recruiting good people and exchange programs. We are always talking about how Germany are doing things well, so why don’t you recruit some Germans? What would be wrong with that?

“A truly successful international board should have someone who is good at finance but it should also have somebody who can understand the other markets.

“You can imagine a board who has the best people [from around the world] and, if you want to be manufacturing experts, you will probably have a German manufacturer there and perhaps a Italian branding specialist.”

Australia’s manufacturing industry provides more than 905,000 direct jobs and supports hundreds of thousands of indirect jobs through related industries.

Sharpe says there are three areas of importance that Australia must address if its manufacturing industry is going to increase its competitiveness in the next decade.

“We need to focus on three things: the value we add, where we will sell and what our products will cost,” Sharpe continued.

“Most importantly, we need to ensure that the next decade guarantees our continued prosperity and creates the right conditions for the next generation.

“What you will hear is that value is the most important by a long shot. Today, the manufacturing sector is larger and stronger than most people think and is one of Australia’s largest employers.”

Sharpe insists Australia must break away from traditional manufacturing and upskill to meet demands up and down the global supply chain.

“The first key point in our research is that manufacturing is changing rapidly and nations like Australia need to focus on where we can add the best value,” Sharpe continued. “Value has shifted from its traditional production phases to research and design to the latest age of sales and service.

“If we want to compete, we need to be strong on both sides of that and also need to recognise that manufacturing doesn’t only mean production.

“It is much more than production and is, in fact, an amazing opportunity for Australia because R&D, sales and service are much less geographically dependent than just production.

“It means that the tyranny of distance that has traditionally constrained Australian manufacturing matters a whole lot less, which is great news for those who use technology-based systems.”