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Is the tide turning for UK manufacturing’s skills gap?

09 October 2017

Industry 4.0 and factory automation are fast approaching, but many manufacturers are concerned that their workforce is not going to be able to adapt, with the phrase “skills gap” hanging like a dark cloud over UK industry. But is it really as bad as people say it is? Anthony Bentham, Customer Service Manager at Fanuc UK, explains why training and apprenticeships are helping to close the gap.

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These days, opening a newspaper feels like a test of character: economic uncertainty, global conflict, climate change and a seemingly endless parade of selfies, celebrities and scandals can make even the most optimistic of us see the glass as half empty.

Even the so-called “Fourth Industrial Revolution”, the future of manufacturing worldwide, is tainted by the warning that the UK in particular may not be ready to face it. Numerous studies have emerged with data that back this up. The Hays Global Skills Index has reported that Britain’s skills shortage is worsening at a rate of eight percent a year, with one in four vacancies proving difficult to fill.

If this is not addressed, the UK risks falling behind other countries in exploiting the latest technological breakthroughs to increase efficiency and productivity, from automation to the Internet of Things. We will then spend years playing catch-up, by which time our exports will have diminished, putting both our workforce and our economy at risk.

However, before we reach for the felt tips and sandwich boards to spread our message of doom, it’s important that we take a step back and look at what can be done to change things.

Education has been, and will always be, the main tool at our disposal in gearing our workforce for the factory of the future. This needs to be done at every level, from teaching primary school children about the benefits of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths), to encouraging school leavers to consider a career in engineering and manufacturing, through either a degree or an apprenticeship.

There have been commendable efforts to encourage young people to take up apprenticeships, but there still seems to be a persistent belief amongst employers that apprentices are both expensive and time-consuming. Apprentices do need looking after, but it’s important that we invest time and money in developing the engineers and manufacturers of the future who, more than any other generation, will be able to unlock the full potential of Industry 4.0.

Furthermore, it seems odd that we worry about a skills gap, when more than half of UK graduates are currently working in non-graduate roles. This kind of waste of resource would be untenable in day-to-day business practices. After all, you wouldn’t fit your factory with the latest in automated robotics, only to employ them solely for the purposes of making the tea. 

It’s encouraging to see that the government is offering incentives to encourage employers to take on more apprentices. The Apprenticeship Levy, for example, will subsidise smaller businesses to help them take on apprentices. Although this has been criticised as a “jobs tax” by some, it is a step in the right direction. Further initiatives could help to subsidise employee training and development, either within the company or through external programmes.

If you had asked me ten years ago if I thought that the skills gap in this country was reaching an alarming width, I would have answered in the affirmative. But, as the years have gone by, I have seen a noticeable shift in attitudes across the generations. Many now see learning as lifelong, and more investment is being made in training young people for careers in STEM. At Fanuc, where once we had one apprentice working on the factory floor, now we have six. We also see customers coming to our training academy to learn how to make the most of their machines, from young companies making their first steps into automation, to industry veterans who want to build a new set of skills. I would encourage more people to book a course to experience for themselves how automation can be applied to their business. 

This positive, proactive attitude to lifelong learning is certainly a step in the right direction, but we must now strive to build this momentum. It’s the only way we will meet the challenges of the future. 

To find out more about the Fanuc academy, or to book your place, please call 02476 053001, or email Alternatively, visit

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