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Solving the industry 4.0 skills gap?

Could IT professionals be the answer?

According to the Engineering UK 2018 report, 61% of businesses were not confident there will be enough people with the skills to fill their high-skilled job vacancies. Although this statistic accounts for the broad sector that is engineering, the industry 4.0 skills gap figure within controls and automation is likely to be higher.

This is because the onset of industry 4.0 is changing automation within the manufacturing industry. The companies we work with are struggling to hire the right people now which will not get any better with an increasing need for industry 4.0 skills. This got us thinking, as a recruitment company that hires within the sector, how can the industry become more attractive to increase the supply of skilled candidates and alleviate the industry 4.0 skills gap?

Transferable Skills

When our controls and automation recruitment team have spoken to people within their network about this, the general consensus is, there aren’t enough opportunities for people to enter the industry. This is due to companies needing skilled candidates to complete project work now, they don’t have the time to train. This is a shame as there are youngsters out there who are enthusiastic and want to learn given the chance. However, there might be another alternative by looking at IT professionals.

As we also recruit within the IT sector, we think we’ve had a lost generation of engineers because there was a real push towards the IT sector. Although some roles were hard to fill, the majority would attract more candidates than within engineering. Could IT professionals solve the industry 4.0 skills gap by transferring over to engineering?

IT to Manufacturing Case Study

John Sullivan

We spoke to John Sullivan, an engineer who has moved from IT into manufacturing to work within controls and automation. In our conversation, we discussed the benefits to both IT professionals and manufacturing companies of hiring IT skills, how we can make the industry more attractive and solve the skills shortage.

What made you move from IT into Operational Technology within Manufacturing?

It wasn’t something I actively chose to do, I was just in the right place at the right time. During the 2008/9 recession, a manufacturer wanted an IT professional to use their skills to help with the technical areas of their plant. I was excited to have the chance to work in manufacturing, in what turned out to be a green field site as well.  It was a great chance to work in a different industry and put my experience in various areas of IT hardware/software, networking, databases and programming into practice in a new setting.

Having now made that transition, I would highly recommend others do the same. The IT sector is so fast-paced, it can be exhausting keeping up with the changing landscape but manufacturing has yet to be as advanced in technology. It gives you more chance to breathe.  (But that pace of change is picking up steam in manufacturing as well.  I later went on to work for a company doing Big Data and Analytics related to manufacturing with a solution that was very cutting edge.  A nice blend of IT and OT worlds there!)

How easy was it to move between IT and OT? What are the transferable skills?

While IT can have you learning many different fields, people are often pidgin-holed into one particular area like software development, or just networking. In the OT world you may have the chance to broaden your skills across several domains. This is because there is always a new problem in manufacturing that needs a different solution. One day it could be on the programming side and another day on the network side.

Other benefits of moving from IT into a manufacturing environment include:

  • The ability to take your IT skills and become more task orientated, which can help you feel a sense of accomplishment.
  • You can really make a difference that has a direct impact on the business. In IT roles, you tend to be a little fish in a big pond whereas in manufacturing it can be the other way around.

For manufacturing companies, we’re in a skills shortage so we need people. Not only will utilising the skills of IT professionals help to bridge that gap but also IT professionals will have a different perspective and way of solving problems. Many will ask why you do something a particular way and you could offer alternatives to help your manufacturing plant become more efficient.

However, although utilising people from other tech industries like IT could support the skills shortage, companies will need to invest the time to train people on their particular industry.

How can we make the industry more attractive to IT people to make a potential move into manufacturing?

There are various considerations when looking at attracting IT professionals to cross over into manufacturing. Firstly focus on how a manufacturing environment offers them much more variety in the work they do, and how it may offer the chance to broaden their skills more than within an IT (office) environment.

Secondly, depending on the type of product you are manufacturing, this could also be attractive and an area to sell. IT professionals are often from the same mindset as engineers in their problem solving and interests.  Appealing to them along the line of your products, services, or culture may be of interest to them as that may add meaning to their work.

Others we have spoken to have mentioned the industry isn’t attractive to the younger generation, would you agree with this?

I think there are a few factors. Years ago a lot of manufacturing moved production to more cost-effective labour countries, so there was negative press, feelings, and opportunities that followed; it gave the industry a stigma. And the word “manufacturing” often brings ideas of smokestacks and old buildings pumping out widgets – not something that can be “cool” (IT people often like the “cool” and “cutting edge” factor.)  These, along with the fact that the last few decades pushing people to think about high school then college/university only (rather than a profitable and rewarding career in a “trade”,) is also a key reason I think that it has deterred people to want to pursue a career within the industry.

Inspiring and getting young people interested in automation at a much younger age is key. Businesses need to be working with schools and allowing children to programme something and see the end result. The education system needs to get students thinking about ‘the why’ not just ‘the what’. Understanding why something does something, not just what it does, allows you to develop the skills to solve problems more quickly. In the present, this often isn’t explored properly until you get to university level.

Other than inspiring youngsters and attracting talent from other industries, is there anything else you think could help to bridge the industry 4.0 skills gap?
Company Collaboration

Companies should be working together to create a community to find solutions rather than working against each other. I know of a few companies and groups that are sharing their work with each other in customer forums and meetings.  For this to happen in the historically very protective field of proprietary manufacturing is amazing.  Sadly this openness is still rare, but it’s getting better.  Also remember that today’s younger workers, who have the world and social networks at their fingertips, expect their work world to also be open and accessible.

Continuous Learning

Companies also need to develop and reward a culture of continuous learning and creativity.  Look into new technologies, including trusted technology that is newly gaining acceptance in the manufacturing world.  For example, I know of a company who shared the technology they had developed for their own plant with other manufacturers. It helped efficiency and worked with all automation platforms. For example, if you had a CNC application interface and had 2 lines down but you only had enough maintenance resource to repair one, how would you choose which one? Currently, you might look at which one was down first, but with the technology mentioned above, it could tell you which one was going to be the most efficient when fixed. Or you might use other solutions to show you which line would be more profitable when operational.  Following either one could mean a better return on your resources. 

New Technology

There is even technology that eliminates the need for coding in now-archaic PLC languages.  This no-code PLC platform enables higher efficiencies, greater safety, and increased communication among your process and controls staff as they and others define your process visually and using regular English sentences from relevant drop-down choices.  This software then creates the needed PLC code for you to export to your supported PLC platform of choice, along with automatic documentation creation as well. This means engineers, technicians, operations, and maintenance staff could work across more processes, lines, projects, and companies, and more collaboratively, instead of only working with those the plc’s they are trained in.

These new applications of technology can be inviting to the IT crowd to enter the traditionally non-IT manufacturing environments. The industry needs to embrace these types of technology to help alleviate the skills gap to a more manageable level.

What Are Your Thoughts?

We found it really interesting chatting to John. He had some valid points in terms of looking beyond candidates who currently sit within the controls & automation industry. His point about getting young people to understand ‘the why’ will hopefully help develop the skills we need. There is a lot for the industry to think about.

It would be great to hear your thoughts and opinions or if you are part of a movement helping to bridge the industry 4.0 skills gap.

What Next?

If you’re looking for support with your controls and automation recruitment, contact the controls and automation team.


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