How to overcome the digital skills gap in the manufacturing sector

The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed the world economy into digital overdrive. Businesses across the board are adopting Industry 4.0 technologies to fuel their operations for stronger, more sustainable competitive advantages. However, these advanced digital technologies such as AI, machine learning, automation and the Internet of Things (IoT) are only as good as their operators – who are in short supply. A rapidly increasing reliance on these technologies has created a digital skills gap; a mismatch between what employers need and what workers can do. This is especially true in the manufacturing sector which is rapidly digitising its entire supply chain and now expects even entry-level workers to use a range of digital devices, smart machinery and software in their everyday roles.


There is no doubt that those manufacturers that successfully transition to digital technologies and smart production methods will secure ongoing relevance thanks to improved efficiencies. That said, digital transformation is a challenging process and its benefits are severely undermined by the digital skills gap which needs immediate attention. To understand the magnitude of the problem, consider for example that 16% of American workers employed in the manufacturing sector have no digital skills whatsoever. In other words, basic tasks such as highlighting text on a screen or using a mouse are beyond their abilities.


Why the digital skills gap exists

Many workers are concerned that digital technologies are taking their jobs and will eventually render them redundant. As a result, there is a notable level of employee hesitancy or reluctance to engage with digital devices or software which only serves to put the workers at a disadvantage. While automation is increasingly taking care of repetitive manufacturing tasks that were traditionally performed manually, someone needs to make sure that the machines run optimally. Human workers are not being pushed out by digital transformation; they are being pushed into new roles and responsibilities that require digital skills.

As the digital revolution redesigns the manufacturing workplace, a growing list of in-demand expertise includes computer and programming skills to drive automation, critical thinking capabilities to turn data insights into action, and the ability to work with interconnected tools and smart software. The problem is that modern manufacturing environments are advancing faster than workers’ digital capabilities, widening the digital skills gap even more. In many precision production processes, 3D printers, data sensors and virtual reality are now standard tools but too few factory floor workers can use them with confidence.

Manufacturing organisations are suffering from the digital skills gap, but they can and must do more to address it. Existing employees are valuable members of the organisation; they possess company knowledge, relationships and experience that are worth retaining and developing further. A common issue among manufacturers is that they embark on digital transformation without assessing their inhouse resources and fail to invest the appropriate time and money in employee training and upskilling opportunities. What is more, an organisation’s overemphasis on its technology rather than on its people has contributed enormously to employees’ suspicion of digital advancement in the workplace.

It is important – and only fair – to acknowledge that manufacturers themselves are feeling overwhelmed by the complexity of digital transformation even as they pursue its benefits. However, they have far more power over the situation than they might realise. Of course, there is no overnight solution to bridging the digital skills gap – but building a continuous improvement (CI) culture that focuses on integrative improvement is a key first step.


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How to close the digital skills gap with a continuous improvement culture

A CI culture is built on lean principles to consistently improve operational efficiencies for better results. These principles are just as (if not more so) relevant in a digital context as they were in a traditional manufacturing environment. In fact, to thrive in the digital age, organisations need to maintain a solid best practice foundation and take a continuous improvement approach to transformation.

Here are four areas of a people-driven organisational culture that should be included in your integrative improvement plan to bridge the digital skills gap and enable a smoother digitisation process.


1. The maturity assessment

Before embarking on a full-scale, company-wide digital transformation, organisations need to investigate their current digital competencies as well as their lack thereof. This includes equipment, software and people. The digital maturity assessment reviews each business area’s existing levels of relevant technological support and skills against the company’s objectives. This determines a tailored approach that prioritises existing employees’ digital capabilities and potential to upskill.


2. Leadership and training

Manufacturing organisations keen to digitise their operations do well to remember that people are their greatest asset – not technology. Thus, employers who invest time and money in their employees to benefit from and build on their existing knowledge and ambitions will experience a seamless digital transformation compared to those that put new tech first.


Manufacturing organisations keen to digitise their operations do well to remember that people are their greatest asset – not technology.


A CI workplace requires a human workforce that is empowered with confidence and curiosity. Leaders within the manufacturing sector need to ensure that their teams are given the necessary training and learning opportunities to perform with digital confidence – and that they can ask for help when it is beyond their immediate expertise.

Business decision-makers, team leaders and departmental managers are under enormous pressure to ensure and encourage their workers’ digital buy-in while they themselves are learning on the job and adjusting to a technologically transformed manufacturing context. To excite and include all employees in the organisation’s digital transition, manufacturers can:

    • Provide in-the-moment training through new technologies such as virtual reality, augmented reality and wearables to simulate scenarios and develop problem-solving skills based on different outcomes.
    • Improve employee engagement through incentives such as reward and recognition programmes as well as interdepartmental competitions.
    • Invest in inhouse apprenticeship programmes to develop a talent pipeline of relevant digital skills.
    • Conduct regular gemba walks – a proven method of employee focused CI initiatives that delivers positive results through in-person observation and listening.


3. Multi-team membership

A traditional manufacturing environment is typically organised into separate silos of operation. An integrative improvement approach to digital transformation breaks down organisational silos, communicates strategy and objectives holistically, and encourages workers to diversify their roles and responsibilities through multi-team membership. Agility, innovation and curiosity are rewarded – even if it steps outside one’s job title. This encourages people to get actively involved in and engaged with the company’s digital growth strategy to build a collaborative, knowledge-sharing and supportive workplace culture.


4. Ongoing investment

An emphasis on people first and technology second means that digitally ambitious manufacturers need to invest in identifying, acquiring, training and retaining top talent – be that through internal or external sources. To overcome the digital skills gap, manufacturers are encouraged to roll up their sleeves and put their time and money into upskilling a diverse pool of talent, particularly in the youth or under-represented populations. Given the rate of technological advancement, organisations need to consistently invest in their people’s digital development to stay ahead of the curve and maintain sustainable competitive advantages. A crucial and invaluable result of creating a CI culture built on integrative improvement is that it pushes an organisation into the limelight as an employer of choice, attracting hard to come by talent as a matter of course.


Tackle the digital skills gap head on

Those manufacturers that continue to engage in bidding wars for highly priced specialists to activate their digital transformations will suffer as such workers will always move on for a bigger pay cheque. Nor can manufacturers afford to sit back and hope for a more digitally skilled human workforce to appear overnight.

Instead, digitally evolving manufacturing organisations, regardless of size, should evaluate their technological and human needs strategically and invest in the requisite training that aligns best with their business objectives. The reality is that the digital skills gap is increasing rapidly as more and more organisations invest in advanced technologies to stay relevant. Forward-thinking manufacturers will put all the right investments in place to ensure that their smart devices and software are optimised by smart humans.


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