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Mind the Gap - Why the Manufacturing Sector Must Learn to Future Proof Its Workforce

07/01/2014 11:20 GMT | Updated 08/03/2014 10:59 GMT

The UK manufacturing sector has been described as 'indispensable' to Europe's economic future. In spite of this, there is still an underlying challenge for the industry to produce a skilled workforce.

There is no doubt that with the government pushing apprenticeship schemes there is a renewed focus on skills, in particular within the manufacturing sector; but much more still needs to be done.

If we are to secure the sector's future, we need to do so through skills development.

Although the industry is currently holding its own on an international level, complacency is starting to creep in. There is still a huge need to recruit fresh talent to replace skills lost through retirements in an ageing workforce, but also a bigger need to up-skill. The imminent plans for the introduction of Higher Apprenticeships (up to degree equivalent) are paving the way for higher level technical skills crucial for job creation and growth in this key sector, but it's not enough. Unless businesses start to invest in their workforce, it will struggle to compete at all.

Apprenticeships are a good start and will of course help future proof the workforce, but ignoring the potential of existing employees is a huge waste of resource. It is vital that employers take the lead and invest in the staff they already have; despite the challenging economic times. Ultimately, if we are to be globally competitive, we must enhance the skills of our people at all levels.

It's imperative that businesses utilise and build on the skills of their employees, after all it is unlikely that the qualifications a person starts a job with will stay up-to-date in the fast paced modern manufacturing world. In order for a business to be successful, it must find ways of adapting to changing markets, and staff training should be central to any business development plans. This will help ensure we have a better skilled workforce, which will assist in driving both our industry and the economy forward.

In my small segment of the manufacturing market, we have spent many years extolling the virtues of the new generation of large diameter plastic pipes that we produce. In an industry where traditional concrete pipes have long been the established means of water management this has been a process that has required a huge amount of hard work, both on the research and development side of things, as well as in terms of engineering, design and installation. This means not only employing the very best people but also continually investing in improving their skill sets over the years.

In order do this and stay competitive, Asset invests heavily in the training of its staff, within all departments, from finance and project management to health and safety. We also sponsor four of our staff currently undertaking Masters courses in Civil Engineering and Project Management.

Of course, it is understandable for any business to question the return on investment during such shrewd times. However I would argue from experience that the return to employers far outweighs the expenditure. If you consider productivity levels and staff loyalty, training is one way of ensuring employees feel intrinsically motivated.

Ultimately, the message to employers is clear: In order to maintain the UK's global position and the economic and social benefits that brings, we need to secure the sector's future through skills development. It is my opinion that businesses who fail to invest in workforce skills will struggle to capitalise on the growth opportunities that the continuing recovery will bring.