How to solve the manufacturing skills gap

Microsoft’s Colin Masson discusses how the latest technologies are enabling manufacturers to attract, empower and engage top talent

Jacqui Griffiths
By Jacqui Griffiths on 22 April 2021
How to solve the manufacturing skills gap

People, enabled by technology, are at the heart of the manufacturing industry’s transformation. And as the latest technologies continue to bring exciting new ways of doing business, companies face the growing challenge of attracting, developing and retaining the skilled workers to match.

“Even before the pandemic, manufacturing has been changing so quickly that it can be difficult for the workforce to keep up,” says Colin Masson, global industry marketing director for manufacturing at Microsoft. “Now, manufacturers face new challenges in terms of worker safety and productivity. On top of it all, customer needs and demands for remote monitoring and services, and for more agile factory and supply chain responses, are adding pressure to their business.”

To keep up, says Masson, the workforce must also transform. “That starts with embracing technology that can attract, train, and retain the next generation of workers, as well as enabling them with the skills they need to reimagine manufacturing and shape a sustainable future,” he says. “By combining the right productivity apps, intelligent cloud services and security, the industry can set its workforces up for success.”

Getting that combination right will yield benefits in terms of both productivity and skills development. “Manufacturers embracing digital transformation can boost workers’ productivity by connecting empowered technicians securely with remote assets to troubleshoot and resolve issues, so technicians are dispatched only when necessary,” says Masson. “They can provide front-line workers with the remote, expert assistance needed to avoid downtime, and enable them to do their best work by unifying devices, data, relationships and processes into intelligent apps that guide them safely through best practices and compliance requirements. And they can increase productivity by augmenting people with team collaboration tools, mixed-reality guides and remote assists, internet of things (IoT)-enabled machines, and artificial intelligence enhanced applications to keep pace with increased operational, maintenance and process complexity.”

For a growing number of manufacturers, enhancing productivity goes hand in hand with personalised learning to provide an enriching workplace experience. “We’re seeing an acceleration in manufacturers adopting fully digitised approaches to recreate the best of in-person learning through live video and social sharing,” says Masson.

Manufacturing and resources companies across the world are using Microsoft technologies to create the perfect combination for their business. For instance, Australian mining company BHP used Microsoft HoloLens 2 and Dynamics 365 Remote Assist to deliver support and training to field workers from thousands of miles away, even when Covid-19 safety restrictions limited the number of people who could work on-site. BHP leveraged IoT sensors and industrial computers connected to Microsoft Azure to create a solution that puts data into the hands of maintenance technicians on their smartphone or tablet. Employees found the technologies to be intuitive and helpful, empowering them to try new things to safely get on with the job.

Masson says that providing a wide network of digital tools and modern devices that offer the best experiences for collaboration and productivity is the key for manufacturers to empower their workers for the future. “Manufacturers don’t want to simply adjust to a digitally transformed industry,” he says. “They also want to drive better business outcomes through process and workflow automation. To achieve this, they need to empower their workforces with tools and solutions that fully integrate people and processes.”

Johnson Controls, for example, used digital tools to continue driving employee engagement and business growth at a time of disruptive restrictions. The company provides fire, heating, ventilation, air conditioning and security equipment for buildings around the world. It is proud of its culture of innovation, which is embodied by a company-wide Tech Challenge ideas competition that marks an annual highlight for its 105,000 employees. When the pandemic in 2020 meant the firm could not host separate competitions across expo halls in the US and India as usual, it used Microsoft 365 technologies to create a single, 100 per cent virtual event that the whole organisation could take part in. As a result, it drew 50 per cent more attendees and saw more global, diverse contestant teams and more engagement than in any other year.

With support from Microsoft and its partners, manufacturers are devising new ways to find, train and keep the workers they need. “Investing in people’s success pays off not just in better quality work, but also in higher employee engagement and retention,” says Masson. “When you give your people a set of modern tools they can access from anywhere, including technologies that help them work better together, you’re helping them be more creative and efficient as a team. Combined with connected data, you’re creating the conditions for innovation. Using technology helps companies to unite massive workforces across global teams – from any device, virtually anywhere. This fosters a more inclusive environment, where employees can share ideas and diverse perspectives can flourish.”

Human resources (HR) teams can use the same tools to collaborate and communicate more effectively. “These solutions empower modern HR to compete for top talent and create an employee experience that leads to retention,” says Masson. “With the help of exciting new mixed-reality tools like guides and remote-assist programmes, manufacturers can draw, onboard and retain talented workers who can deliver impactful results.”

By providing digital tools that are relevant to today’s workforce, manufacturers can create a foundation for growth through more agile, remote business practices. “This industry is building the future,” says Masson. “That’s exciting to the next generation of top talent. How manufacturers use technology to attract, train, and retain them can be a significant competitive advantage.”

Partner perspectives
We asked selected Microsoft partners how they are helping manufacturers to bridge the skills gap and prepare their people for a digital future. Below are extracts from their responses, which you can read in full from page 101 of the digital edition of the Spring 2020 issue of The Record.

Sarah Reynolds, vice president of marketing, augmented reality and IoT at PTC, says: “By capturing best practices and step-by-step instructions from your top employees as they work, you can quickly and easily unlock the knowledge within your workforce and create immersive job aids and training materials that help all employees become experts.”

Melissa Topp, senior director of global marketing at ICONICS, says: “[Our] Connected Field Service tool integrated with its MobileHMI product helps those within an organisation with institutional knowledge to easily share their expertise from anywhere with onsite field service technicians.”

This article was originally published in the Spring 2021 issue of The Record. To get future issues delivered directly to your inbox, sign up for a free subscription.

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