When I meet with IFS customers across the UK one of the most common pieces of feedback is the struggle to find talent to bridge the ‘skills gap’ or ‘skills shortage’ affecting UK businesses.
On the one hand, they have new technologies entering their factories, warehouses, construction sites and in-field equipment, on the other, they have outside pressures such as high competition for jobs, declining STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) career entrants and employment uncertainty exacerbated by Brexit. These two sets of seemingly incompatible forces are making it hard for businesses to attract talent.
Implications across industries
This phenomenon is not limited to individual industries. The aerospace and defense sector is grappling with a huge demand for maintenance repair & overhaul (MRO) technicians to deal with ever-growing fleet sizes and next-generation composite aircraft entering service.
In construction, the Chartered Institute of Building (CIOB) says that to keep up with demand, the industry will need to find 157,000 new recruits by 2021. Engineering UK forecasts an annual shortfall of 20,000 engineers, while eight in ten UK manufacturers are reportedly feeling the pinch of worker shortages.
The tech sector as a whole is reflecting this trend—79 percent of technology employers have said that a shortage of suitable applicants is their top recruitment challenge for the coming year, according to recruiting giant Hays.
Where are the skills coming from?
How can we address the skill and labor shortfall across UK industries? Training would be an obvious answer, and, looking longer term, it is important to drive students through education and apprentice programs for STEM subjects.
With their more direct approach to learning, apprenticeships are perfectly suited for STEM subjects and are encouragingly on the rise. Things are trending in the right direction. The Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) recently revealed that numbers of STEM students in undergraduate and postgraduate roles have risen in the past five years.
However, despite these shoots of recovery, when you throw in the migration uncertainty shrouding the Brexit debate it becomes clear there isn’t simply a quick human resource fix to the skills shortage. Short-term solutions must come from some innovative thinking.
Augmenting workforce skills
New technologies offer a way to stretch knowledge and expertise across thin workforces. The use of virtual and augmented reality over wearable or mobile devices can layer digital content into a technician’s work environment—presenting them, for example, with the tasks that need to be done for the day or suggesting the most efficient way to perform a repair. The technicians can easily access work history or summon other relevant documents via voice command.
Taking this a step further, they could be put in touch with a more experienced colleague, who can visualize their environment, then recommend and even demonstrate fixes and solutions in real-time.
Artificial intelligence is often given an unfair reputation of threatening jobs in all sectors, but it is becoming increasingly apparent that the human touch is vitally important for getting the best from AI technology, particularly in manufacturing. Take unplanned maintenance events.
With AI predicting failures ahead of time, technicians can be briefed on the components that need inspection and which tools and methods to use in advance—carefully focusing human time and resources in the most effective way.
Enterprise software locking in tribal knowledge
One of the key issues, particularly in the maintenance arena, is the number of extremely skilled and experienced workers hitting retirement age. When they leave organizations, they take with them a huge amount of irreplaceable knowledge. We need to look at ways to lock this information into the business, and this can’t be done if knowledge is built upon a tribal basis.
Here enterprise software has a key role to play. It has the ability to store maintenance and engineering history—capturing information from these skilled workers as they carry out daily work orders and execute key processes. As new recruits enter the workplace the software can put this history at their fingertips, giving them a platform to refer to and learn from.
The skills gap is too much of an immediate pain-point to ignore, and that’s why short-term planning and quick thinking is required now.
Of course, going forward, we need to encourage more prospective workers into STEM careers. This comes from the collaboration between government educators, industry bodies and businesses themselves. Fortunately, we are seeing the green shoots of forward planning with training centers and apprentice programs cropping up across the UK.
What’s clear is we can’t solve this problem overnight—but I welcome any thoughts on how we can stop moaning and start moving to reduce the industry skills gap!
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Photo: Monty Rakusen