The manufacturing sector is not usually front of mind when young adults – today’s “digital natives” – consider career choices. But with the advent of digital manufacturing, the sector is facing a serious skills shortage and executives need to act if manufacturing is to retain its rightful place in a healthy economy.

Worldwide, the manufacturing sector has over the past few years seen a dramatic shift from traditional manufacturing practices (which were labour intensive and required low technology) to models embracing the latest technological – especially digital – advances.

In South Africa and in Africa as a whole, the move to digital has been slower but the momentum is picking up, driven by multinational companies that are standardising the migration from analogue and semi-digitised equipment to fully functional digital manufacturing equipment. South Africa’s status on the continent as an economic gateway is also fuelling the race for the digitisation of manufacturing.

These new technology models require skills sets that are in short supply at all levels in the manufacturing sector. Unfortunately, manufacturing is not seen as a particularly innovative industry, and young people have for the most part not made the connection between new technology and manufacturing. It is still seen as a traditional industry to which graduates seem to be drawn only if there are no options available in sexier sectors such as telecommunications.

The manufacturing sector has not done nearly enough to portray itself as a desirable industry where digital natives can forge long-term careers. It has been far too inward-looking, lamenting its state of slow decline instead of seizing opportunities and showcasing advanced manufacturing technology to appeal to the new generation.

Trends analyst Dion Chang of Flux Trends recently presented his 2016 findings on how hiring trends have changed. The findings corroborate that young people of today operate differently, work in different time zones and are less likely to stay at a single company for many years. They are adventurous and more likely to take risks. Leaders must understand how these digital natives think and operate, and how they can be coached into the manufacturing sector to help provide much-needed solutions.

How can the image of the manufacturing industry as a staid, conformist and unexciting sector be turned around to attract and retain the skills it urgently needs? Industry leaders need to:

Understand today’s digital natives

Manufacturers and leaders need to understand how the millennial generation thinks and operates, and know the value they can bring to an organisation. They also need a strategy to integrate digital natives into their companies – sustainable, intergenerational teams can be created by pairing digital natives with the current workforce, enabling skills diversity at all levels.

Embrace technology

Strategic conversations must take place at the highest level, and the top leadership must embrace the digital era fearlessly. If senior leaders are not technologically savvy, they should surround themselves with expert teams to help them lead their companies. Today’s digital natives need to feel secure that the organisation is committed to an overarching digital strategy as a crucial driver of its growth.

Facilitate collaboration

Leaders should enter into agreements with educational institutions to ensure they teach the relevant skills to meet the needs of the manufacturing sector – for example, through course sponsorships. They should also work with the government to align with policymakers.

Finally, the manufacturing industry can certainly learn some lessons from the fixed-line telecommunications sector. People forget that telecoms used to be preserve of government ministries, but with the advent of mobile telecoms, everything changed as the industry communicated the benefits of wireless technology. Suddenly the possibilities were endless and everyone wanted to be associated with the sector.

In the same way, the manufacturing sector has to showcase its role as a purveyor of advanced technology. The opportunities are there; industry leaders now need to embrace them and portray the sector as a source of innovation to attract the right skills.

This article was paid for by Odgers Berndtson Sub-Saharan Africa.

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