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The 8 Adaptive Skills That Can Secure Manufacturing’s Future

Over two million — that’s how many manufacturing jobs are expected to be unfilled by 2030 unless companies act now to close the skills gap. It’s a huge (and growing) number and, unsurprisingly, a top priority for the industry.

According to a new report by the Manufacturing Institute, in conjunction with Ernst & Young LLP, 65% of manufacturing leaders worry the skills needed for manufacturing jobs are changing faster than the capabilities of their workforce. Meanwhile, 82% said they are seeking innovative ways to invest in their people’s careers and 60% of leaders are creating or expanding their internal training programs to solve the skills deficit.

Yet, despite the widespread awareness of the scale and urgency of the issue, are manufacturing companies actually doing enough to address the skills gap? The short answer is no — or, at least, not yet.

Cause and effect

The reason is, of course, that it’s not easy! The very nature of the skills gap is that its causes are both varied and evolving, making it difficult for firms to get ahead of the curve.

For example, on one hand, technology is rapidly digitalizing nearly every manufacturing job, demanding enhanced capabilities among staff from the shop floor to the C-suite. At the same time, more employees are eschewing consistent, task-oriented roles in favor of flexibility, experiences and the feeling of making a difference. All of this is happening while the industry itself transitions from being a world of mass production and cost optimization to one of mass customization and business model optionality.

The effects of these factors are equally far reaching and capricious, requiring manufacturers to fundamentally change the way they recruit, retain and retrain their talent. Gone are the days of finding the exact technical skills for a particular job, like a pipe fitter, a machinist or an electrician. Instead, firms must now focus on what the Manufacturing Institute’s report terms “adaptive skills” — that is, workers with the ability to evolve their capabilities in line with the shifting nature of their role.

Adapt or die?

Tellingly, there was near-universal agreement among the leaders who took part in the study that viewing and addressing the skills gap through the lens of adaptive skills will be pivotal to building a successful manufacturing sector of the future.

In particular, the research calls out eight adaptive skills likely to be at the heart of tomorrow’s workforce. And while the first five are relevant across multiple sectors, the final three (numbers 6., 7. and 8. below) are of special importance to manufacturers.

  1. Analytical acumen – using data and technology to make better decisions, solve problems and improve quality and productivity
  2. Business acumen – understanding business goals and taking a broader view of how processes can be improved to achieve them
  3. Creative reasoning – tackling problems with innovative ideas and solutions
  4. Learning agility – being a continuous learner, maximizing training and development opportunities as workplace demands evolve
  5. Resilience – recovering quickly from setbacks and dealing with ambiguity
  6. Root cause analysis – identifying the underlying conditions that create issues with a machine or system
  7. Social and emotional intelligence – effectively managing interpersonal relationships by taking into account the context
  8. Systems thinking – looking beyond a single task or function to take accountability for the success of the whole system

Stepping on

As for how manufacturing firms go about activating these adaptive skills in their workforce, there are some clear steps leaders can take now.

The first is setting the tone for an adaptive company-wide culture based on engagement, collaboration and empowerment. An adaptive culture recognizes and rewards people who speak up with ideas and encourages the use of trial and error to drive improvements and growth.

This same adaptive culture must also be translated into a people strategy, allowing companies to look beyond traditional skills and backgrounds to instead hire from a broader pool of talent. Individuals who may previously have been lost to the likes of Silicon Valley can be attracted into a modern, digitalized manufacturing industry — but only if firms are bold enough to use the right marketing and employee value proposition.

This new generation of workers must also be retained as they develop, which means creating career paths that offer clear visibility of the capabilities needed to move along them. Crucially, workers must be able to take control of their own journey, assessing where they are in relation to the necessary skills for the roles they want. They should then be supported with training and development opportunities to progress and gain more satisfaction from their work.

And finally, manufacturers should aim to shift to a more individualized learning environment. Right now, learning tends to be 70% experiential, 20% mentoring and 10% classroom based. But could a firm’s experiential component actually comprise more job rotation, shadowing or even augmented reality learning? Could mentoring include multigenerational teams or reverse relationships where current employees learn new ideas and approaches from younger, newer ones? And would classroom learning be more engaging if it featured immersive and gamified experiences — either in person or virtually? For firms, answering these questions based on the individual needs of their workforce is vital.

A platform for success

Whichever steps individual manufacturers choose to take to address the skills shortage, the most important thing is that they center any actions around this reframed view of their talent.

Whether a long-time employee or new recruit, adaptive skills increasingly hold the key to every manufacturing worker’s success — from maximizing technologies like data analytics, artificial intelligence and machine learning to creating new “as a service” business models and limiting the impact of supply chain disruptions in an unpredictable world.

It’s just seven years away until 2030 and much needs to be done if that 2.1 million prediction is to be proved incorrect. But lay the right platform of adaptive skills now and manufacturers will do far more than just mind the gap. They will create a truly modernized workforce capable of driving them forward long into the future.

The views reflected in this article are the views of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Ernst & Young LLP or other members of the global EY organization.