Automation and its effect on jobs in consumer manufacturing

 
Automation hasn’t always been prevalent in manufacturing; historically a lot of what is now manufactured by machines was done by hand. Due to technological advances in the last 20 years, automation has become a growing concern in manufacturing and continues to give businesses their competitive advantage through fast paced production, repeatability and better consistency with quality.
 
While more and more fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) manufacturing businesses are driving for better efficiencies and operational excellence through further automation; what does this actually mean for availability of jobs in the UK?
 

Automation vs. skill set availability

 
At the moment, in what is a rather unpredictable market place, it would seem that automation is having a positive impact on the number of jobs, particularly for project managers and operational leaders with experience of automation; upskilling of operators and continuous improvement. The challenge is then perhaps more around availability of certain skills. As more employers search for the same talent in the market, it makes for an incredibly difficult recruitment process as everyone is competing in the same talent pool. The concept of benchmarking is dwindling as job briefs become more specific in their requirements; the amount of people available with relevant experience and skills is reduced, particularly when competition is high from other businesses. In this highly competitive recruitment market, it is those businesses that are able to make quicker decisions about hiring that are prevailing.
 
Coupled with this is the more generic challenge of defining competitive salaries based on an increased demand for certain skill sets. This can naturally lead to candidates receiving an increased level of counter-offers which means less available talent for those companies ready to utilise automation. This, in conjunction with the difficulties that exist with trying to encourage people outside of consumer businesses to consider a move into the sector, suggests that the challenges are more around candidate availability than number of jobs.
 

Skills shortage – electrical engineering

 
In December 2014, it was widely publicised that UK manufacturing needed 20% more electricians to support the economic recovery in a report by KPMG. Some articles have suggested that there were small signs of recovery in this area however; as automation continues to increase within production, UK manufacturing businesses have more to do. It is arguable then that automation is and will continue to encourage more apprenticeship programmes within FMCG manufacturing businesses, and will also allow for operators to be upskilled. In a recent Food Manufacture publication, it becomes evident that food manufacturing businesses have made a big commitment to preventing a bigger skills deficit through the launch of the ‘National Apprenticeship Week’. This certainly suggests that automation isn’t a bad thing as far as job creation in UK manufacturing is concerned. 
 
According to the UK Economic Outlook – March 2016 report by PwC, whilst jobs in the UK should increase by 3 million by 2025, “The number of jobs in manufacturing could fall by a further 600,000 to around 2 million by 2025 as new automated technologies continue to boost productivity and overseas competition remains fierce.”
 
The increased demand for a certain skill set is isolating those who have operated in more traditional manufacturing environments and are arguably behind the curve. So, will automation increase the amount of technical and skilled labour needed and reduce more semi-skilled requirements? Perhaps the industry will advance enough to ensure that human skills adapt and we move forward with technology, suggests Industry Week
 

Conclusion

 
If you are currently considering your next opportunity and are looking to break into the consumer market, the traditional view that you need to have previous sector experience is one that is fast diminishing. For those currently working in a consumer manufacturing environment, it is worth taking note of how forward thinking your business is and the types of opportunities available for continuous improvement, TPM and Six Sigma training and development, to ensure that your career is future proofed. 
 
Louise McReynolds
T: +44 113 388 9054