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Digital skills helped UK manufacturers to survive Covid

02 November, 2020

When the Coronavirus pandemic struck, British manufacturers adopted digital technologies rapidly, with nearly half switching to digital working practices within two weeks of lockdown, according to new research published by the manufacturers’ organisation Make UK, and Sage. Within a fortnight, 94% of the 208 companies surveyed said they had staff working from home in industries often associated with manual tasks and a high proportion of production-based work.

In a report called Digital Skills for a Digital Manufacturing Future, Make UK and Sage reveal that a quarter of companies polled found that using new digital technologies had boosted their productivity, and 12% said it had raised their production levels.

Almost all (91%) of the manufacturers report that they have benefitted from adopting new digital technologies during the crisis. And eight out of ten companies plan to continue using these technologies, having seen the benefits they delivered.

Some 87% of manufacturers say that investing in digital training has given them a competitive advantage, and nearly two-thirds (64%) have implemented training to boost their employees’ digital skills during the past 12 months. The smallest and largest companies were most likely to have implemented such training – 83% of companies with up to nine employees, and 94% with more than 1,000 staff.

In the past few months, the new skills have enabled manufacturers to implement remote production and monitoring systems that kept lines working, and to perform virtual commissioning.

Almost half (45%) of the companies surveyed say they have changed their training and strategies in the light of Covid-19. But cost pressures and the need to socially distance has meant that two-thirds of them have put some or all of their training on hold.

Two-thirds of the manufacturers do not think the UK’s education and training system is keeping pace with advances in digital technology. Make UK and Sage say that this indicates “a serious lag between the UK’s ambitions to be a world leader in digital adoption and our skills and training system delivering what is needed”. They are calling on Government and industry to establish a National Skills Taskforce, to deliver a digital skills programme and a digital skills account for lifelong learning to enable ongoing reskilling.

The Make UK/Sage report suggests that many UK manufacturers have be able to boost their productivity during the Covid-19 pandemic by adopting digital technologies

“The last six months have shown that digital has been crucial in making it possible for manufacturers to continue production successfully against a backdrop of Covid – highlighting the need to ramp up digital skills within the manufacturing sector even further as companies move to build future resilience and boost productivity,” says Make UK CEO, Stephen Phipson.

“Most companies put some of their workers on furlough, but sadly the subsequent fall in demand has meant that some highly skilled people have gone on to lose their jobs,” he adds. “As the sector is fights to get its order books back to something like normal, it is crucially important that we do everything possible to keep hold of these skilled people who are currently unemployed.

“This is why government must work with industry to set up a National Skills Taskforce to match those skilled workers with employers who so desperately need those skills alongside developing a lifelong learning programme to constantly upskill existing employees,” Phipson continues. “Manufacturers should also look to harness the power of young people who are digitally fluent to fully embrace digitalisation throughout UK manufacturing”.

According to Rob Sinfield, vice-president of manufacturing at Sage, the finding from the survey are “promising” but also “a stark reminder of the challenges businesses, particularly manufacturers, face in the coming months. It is clear the 91% of manufacturers that have benefited from the adoption of new technology understand the importance of digital; the ones that have invested and adopted in digital are the ones that have adapted quickest.

“As two-thirds of manufacturers don’t think the education and training system is fit for purpose to help them adopt of new digital technologies, we now need to look at what support there is for them to bridge any digital skills gaps,” he adds.

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