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Feature Dec-Jan 2023 (The Manufacturer)

With some eight billion people on this planet, you’d think industry would be spoiled for choice of the best and brightest. However, as Daniel Dombach, Director, EMEA Industry Solutions, Zebra Technologies, confirms, organisations have been feeling the pinch of labour shortages covering all ages and multiple industrial segments.

“Attrition rates are relatively high, and then Brexit isn’t helping too much either,” he said. “And everyone is looking for young talent.” The UK government says more 18 year olds are studying science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) than ever. So the pool should be growing. The trouble is that they need to be specifically attracted to manufacturing.

He suggested that Zebra aims to get in early with its summer internship programme for those still studying, the idea being they will apply for future roles post-graduation. It’s partly about raising awareness too, not only of the job opportunities but different aspects of the industry.

“I think this works well, especially if you’re in a niche industry like Zebra. Let’s face it, if you ask a young person where they want to work, they probably won’t think of us.

They will probably list the likes of Amazon, Google and Microsoft,” he pointed out, adding that a presence on social media for this reason can be essential.

Even the brightest, most motivated graduates may not understand how much technology and creative innovation might be involved in a manufacturing role. Promotion of your capabilities, creativity and brand beyond your usual market contacts has therefore become critical.

“And you need to know what you really want. An introverted software developer sitting at their PC, or a sales person who finds it easy to go out hunting and socialising?” added Dombach. “You need both.”

Having a way for potential candidates to be referred is also useful. It should go without saying that interviewing processes need to be constructed carefully, including in-house staff who really understand the job and can give accurate information to candidates as well as working closely with HR.

What do you want?

Both sides need to be able to work out quickly what they want and what is expected. Only then can they work out whether the role is a match or “take an honest decision” and move on.

“It can be a matter of company philosophy. Are you extremely hierarchical and very much order driven? That’s different to a more team-focused approach,” said Dombach. “For very specific functions, you might use professional help or head-hunters.”

He warned that today’s younger generation may have different values and a different plan for their life than in the past, when the typical goal was to move forward and grow faster, stepping up a so-called ‘career ladder’. Someone who started in sales might enjoy and do well in marketing or consultative work. Also, younger generations may prioritise “that famous work-life balance we always like to talk about”.

After all, simply attracting the most talented candidates can be costly, even counter-productive, if retention is poor. Benefits in addition to the right salary can be useful of course.

“What I see from young people today is that they might even be more interested in a sidestep to try something different, rather than climbing up the career ladder,” Dombach added. “A lot more are looking for sustainability.”

Luke Walsh, Managing Director of Liverpool headquartered manufacturer Brainboxes, said that despite the industrial automation specialist having “its best year ever” in 2022, recruiting has got harder.

“We’ve been crazy busy, which means we’ve had to hire a number of people,” he commented. “There have been a lot of vacancies and not many people available.”

Impacts in perspective

Walsh suggests that paying attention to younger people’s perspectives when recruiting can be advantageous. Currently, many can feel somewhat disenfranchised and not part of the wider society. So it makes sense to try and address that in how you construct and market your hiring initiatives, as well as in the way the company operates every day – its culture and strategy.

“We want to show people that if you work here, you are part of something and you’re having an impact. In a large distributed global organisation, you can often feel like a cog in the machine,” he explained.

Workers who aren’t aware how they personally make a difference or how their role fits into the greater whole, may be less likely to fully commit. Top talent for sales can be particularly difficult to attract, given potential preconceptions and lack of awareness among young graduates of how technical a sales role might be, for instance.

Walsh gave the example of a past interviewee who had worked at a tea company as a purchaser, but had never seen the production line or anyone who actually used the products that she bought for the company.

“She just felt unconnected,” he said. “If you can connect people to the outcome, and the result, that makes a big difference.” Brainboxes tries to implement these ideas from first contact. When bringing in a cohort of young apprentices, the company not only shows them around but explains exactly how their work could make an impact.

Not only do they know “every piece of the jigsaw that’s somewhere nearby”, from hardware to software teams, to sales and purchasing, but they understand the direct relationship of what they do to these other pieces of the business, and how working together affects the overall output and its quality.

“We sit them down and say: ‘that’s what we do – we’d really love you to join us but let us know if you want to be interviewed for the work’. So we start things the other way around – ‘based on the fact you have more information now, are you still interested?’,” he added.

Values, ethics and openness

Newer generations can hold company ethics and sustainability in high regard, and may prefer a different management style as well, Walsh added. This might mean encouraging more input and openness to what might have been considered “non-conformity” in previous decades. Of course, this may also benefit older workers, even if the ‘old hand’s’ first impression is that you’re being ‘too good’ to the younger generation. People can rise to an occasion.

“Previously, we might say in X months or years, we’ll give you this additional responsibility but you’re not ready yet,” Walsh said. “Now, we’re actually suggesting people jump in earlier.”

Adrian Bostock, Principal at consultancy company Kearney, agreed that multiple factors can be addressed in the bid to both attract and retain talent. Partnering with universities and schools to engage young people early on can be crucial – and certainly firms must leverage brand recognition, differentiated products and the like.

That can mean being more transparent, sometimes in unexpected ways such as in the adverts themselves, than always feels comfortable. “Encouraging graduates to apply for jobs at Jaguar Land Rover, for example, will be more successful than advertising roles at ‘a British automotive manufacturer’,” Bostock explained.

“Furthermore, a business must demonstrate that it is investing in its employees. Competitive salaries, career progression and training are an important part of this, but firms also need to make sure their values reflect those of their workforce.”

His prescription? Establish a values based, purpose-driven organisation with sustainability at its core, while demonstrating and acting on commitments that really matter to employees, such as diverse and inclusive working environments.

Mark Yeeles, VP of Industrial Automation, Schneider Electric UK&I, agreed with Bostock, adding that the industry could increasingly work together to make manufacturing front-of-mind for entrants into the workforce. He suggested aiming to transcend what major corporations might do – after all, they can be the go-tos for young people not especially familiar with an industry; working hard to inspire passion and enthusiasm will pay off.

Talent drives transformation

Yeeles pointed out that so much cutting edge tech is now available and that is increasingly making the talent shortage one of the biggest barriers to maintaining, or increasing, momentum. “If we want to draw the top talent into our sector and industry, we have a lot of work to do,” warned Yeeles. “We haven’t failed, but we also haven’t succeeded. In 2023, I see it as a wonderful opportunity to showcase together what we can really do in our industry.”

This year’s tech outlook survey from IBM-owned IT company Red Hat reiterates the increased difficulty of finding tech skills for innovation.

Talent was cited as the top barrier to digital transformation for 27% of 1,703 customers, across a range of sectors and sizes of organisation. With IT automation, artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) and cyber security increasing in importance, for manufacturing, progress and innovation can stall without access to the proper skills.

According to the Red Hat report, this year’s top non-IT funding priorities have been up-skilling and people, which speaks to evolving market conditions and a tight labour market – which means companies need to get more creative about defining strategy and priorities, and how they recruit, retain and reskill.

Among non-IT funding priorities outside of IT, 37% of respondents chose both digital transformation strategy and technical/ technology skills training. People/process skills training came in third (30%), with IT or developer hiring and retention just behind (28%). Separately, the data also reflected that more organisations may be seeking to accelerate their digital transformation efforts. This suggests that competition for tech talent might actually heat up further – rather than dissipating as 2022 and the pandemic fade.

Bringing them here

When talent can’t be found locally, might it be sought from abroad? The UK government says it designs its immigration strategies (as well as education policies) to ensure organisations can attract ‘the best and brightest’.

Yet there have been concerns that manufacturing might be overlooked as a key sector in need at this time. The latest graduate programme launched in 2021, gave foreign students permission to reside and work at any skill level for two or three years after graduating, but only applies to students who’ve had the funds to study here in the first place.

And even so, the option is not automatic – they need to jump through the hoops of the newest points-based immigration system to do so. Post-Brexit, the crop of talent available to UK companies from European universities has shrunk, due to the difficulties for individuals in acquiring permission to work in the UK as a third country.

However, solutions have been put forward. In 2020, Philip Salter, Sam Dumitriu, Anton Howes and Aria Babu, at thinktank, The Entrepreneurs Network, said the UK has shown in the past that it can attract the best and brightest, particularly when it comes to top scientific and innovative talent, by proactively identifying and persuading them to settle here. They explained that today, the UK should replicate low bureaucracy grant funding systems to attract academic scientists, pointing to Yale and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in the US as examples.

In addition, the UK could reform under-utilised visa programmes targeting innovators and entrepreneurs by allowing endorsing bodies to charge for applications. Visa routes too are typically ‘slow’, ‘complex’ and ‘blighted’ with red tape which could be reduced and taxes for businesses adapted to encourage venture capital.

“In the 16th century (the UK) hired hundreds of German metallurgical experts, giving denizenship rights to them and their families, to start Britain’s copper and brass industries, which soon became world beating,” they argued.

“It poached France’s textile workers and engineers, and in the 17th century proactively acquired civil engineering talent from the Netherlands.”

While just 14% of UK residents are foreign-born, 49% of the UK’s 100 fastest growing start-ups and 11 of the UK’s 16 start-up unicorns – pre-IPO start-ups valued at over $1bn – have at least one foreign-born co-founder. “To attract the very best and brightest, we need to properly promote the UK abroad, such as the ease of access to capital, its universities, other talent and tax breaks, as well as the relevant visa routes.”

This is a version of an article first published in the Dec-Jan 2023 print issue of The Manufacturer


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