New approaches needed 
for workforce development

Joe Terrett   

General Manufacturing labour manufacturing skills Technology training workforce

The use of new digital technlogies is reshaping the way education and training is being delivered.

Every year, the World Manufacturing Forum brings together business leaders, academics and practitioners, researchers and policy makers from more than 50 countries, to discuss the latest trends reshaping manufacturing. They share best practices and encourage collaborative approaches to address challenges facing the industry. This year the Forum’s focus is on the skills required by an advanced manufacturing workforce.

One thing that’s striking about the discussions is how similar the challenges are around the world, especially skills and workforce development.

Another common challenge is the need to overcome current and future labour shortages. Workers with a wealth of expertise are retiring and manufacturers are finding it difficult to source people with the skills and experience needed for their current operations. Many companies are turning to automation, but that creates demand for new technical skills, which are also in short supply.

Companies recognize the need to attract more people, whether it’s a younger generation or increasing the participation of women, aboriginal employees, people with disabilities, or other under-represented groups. It’s not just a good thing to do, it’s a business imperative.


And, there’s much more to it than making manufacturing look sexier! Manufacturers are competing with every other business sector sourcing technical talent. That’s why the Forum’s report declares at the very beginning the onus for developing an advanced manufacturing workforce rests primarily with manufacturers.

A key message from industry leaders is new approaches are needed to close current and future skills gaps. They include: more investment in worker training; a more proactive approach to recruitment and the organization of work; more partnerships and collaboration between industry and education; more work-integrated education combining academic study and practical experience; and the use of new technologies to provide personalized, task-specific training.

The rapid pace of technological change is a huge disruption to workforce development. It calls for more collaboration across industry and more partnerships between industry and educators to keep up with technical progress.

The necessary new management systems and operating processes require a reorganization of work within enterprises and across supply chains. It’s a question not only of preparing employees with appropriate skills, but of figuring out how people should work together to get the job done. It’s also about building partnerships to bring in the expertise that companies lack. With manufacturers relying on their suppliers more as solution providers, access to expertise and skills development are becoming increasingly important elements of their knowledge supply chains.

Another interesting issue is whether it’s easier to train workers in digital skills or find and train software developers or computer and data scientists in manufacturing skills. More manufacturers are focusing on upgrading the digital skills of their current employees.

The use of new digital technologies is reshaping the way education and training is delivered. Online training augmented with virtual reality, and gamification offer workers (and customers) personalized learning opportunities on demand. They’re another important factor contributing to the de-institutionalization of education at relatively low costs.

This doesn’t mean academic education is unimportant. Employees need a solid grounding in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Education in those fields should begin at an early age, well before students enter secondary school. There is a host of important non-technical skills as well, such as teamwork, problem solving, management, systems thinking and design.

Educators in our schools, universities and colleges play an integral role in preparing young people for future careers and in upgrading the skills of employees already in the workforce, but they can’t do it on their own. Customized technical training, practical work-integrated learning experiences and on-the-job education will all demand closer partnerships with manufacturers, in addition to proactive support from government.

In the end, the Forum’s report concludes it’s not really technology that defines an advanced manufacturing enterprise or supply chain. It’s people, how they work together and how they use the available tools that will determine whether a manufacturer is prepared to compete and thrive in an era of rapid technological change, more demanding customers and shifting market forces.

Jayson Myers, the CEO of Next Generation Manufacturing Canada, is an award-winning business economist and advisor to private and public sector leaders. E-mail Visit


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