The pandemic has caused considerable disruption to the UK economy, and with that, unemployment has increased considerably. At the end of 2020, unemployment was at 5%, with experts predicting this is likely to increase to 7.5% by mid-2021, with 2.6 million people unemployed.
Many sectors have experienced difficulties, however, some have thrived off the drastic changes to consumer behaviour and demands. The take-up within logistics has soared to record-breaking levels, as retailers sought to keep up with the surge in demand for online shopping during the coronavirus pandemic. With that, the demand for skilled workers is rapidly growing, however, with the industry constantly evolving and incorporating new technologies, the skills gap is increasing. As the UK economy lags behind in terms of skills, productivity and innovation, it is clear that a career in this area is valuable in order to continue to encourage industry growth, increase efficiencies and support the economy.
The Industry is Evolving
The pandemic has highlighted the importance of technology within the manufacturing industry, especially with social distancing measures in place and increased consumer demand. And with the pandemic accelerating the adoption of technology, it is clear that continued investments in robotic automation will contribute to the transformation of the manufacturing process.
According to new research by PWC, it is estimated that by the mid-2030s, up to 30% of all jobs could be automatable. Indeed, automation is becoming increasingly important to the materials handling industry, requiring more skilled people within these environments. However, the latest IRF report on World Robotics highlights how far behind the UK is in terms of automation compared to its international rivals, which is exacerbated by a skills shortage in the qualifications needed to drive automation.
With the growing pressure from increasing customer expectations, warehouses and distribution centres are becoming more complex environments, with the demand for 24x7 operations. Manual tasks are becoming automated – whether it's partially or fully, providing operators with the opportunity to concentrate on other parts of their job, such as considering ways to improve customer service, reviewing innovative battery charging technologies and their environmental impact, as well as safety within the warehouse. And with an increasing focus on using Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Augmented Reality (AR) to drive operational efficiencies, businesses will need to consider new strategies to attract, train and retain the skilled workforce needed to facilitate this.
In order to keep up with these developments, it is estimated that companies will need to recruit an additional 700,000 skilled employees, yielding a total of 3.4 million workers. However, the manufacturing industry in particular is projected to fall two million workers short of its needs.
The government is now encouraging initiatives to up-skill individuals, including the 'Lifetime Skills Guarantee’ campaign, aimed at providing adults with lifelong technical skills, as well as the government’s Kickstarter Programmes, aiming to help young people get back into the job market by providing funding for employers to create six-month job placements. With the growing number of digitised jobs, it’s critical that such skills programmes emphasise the need to gain digital and data skills that are essential to the modern workplace.
An alternative route to bridge the skills gap and ensure the workforce has the tools needed to work effectively in a digital environment involves offering training in-house, which provides individuals with other possible pathways to secure employment. This enables employers to develop workers who have the exact skills and competencies required to work within the industry, while being able to grow as the industry does. This process effectively eliminates the need for government and educational facilities to support this career pathway, building significant foundations for the future and establishing more routes into the thriving industry, while strengthening the UK’s economic position.
Demand for a Smart Workforce
The demand for engineers in the materials handling industry is increasing, and the role no longer consists of working manually with the machines. Now, engineers are required to work with the latest innovations around improving efficiency, productivity and space optimisation. Lithium-ion technology, for example, is leading the way in achieving faster charging times and creates a more flexible and environmentally friendly working environment. Additionally, forklift trucks are operating on laser guidance systems, pallets are moved from A to B on conveyors and elevators, and there are high bay warehouses with stacker cranes moving products. Although automated machinery requires minimal human interaction, the software and programming behind the systems used is considerable, and this is where trained engineers are essential.
The automated warehouse provides the opportunity to employ and train many digitally skilled workers who will be able to encourage future development. Indeed, educational qualifications where you learn on the job are increasingly attractive, and those apprentices spend valuable time in the field, gaining hands on experience with monitoring, maintaining and servicing products. Apprenticeship schemes also provide organisations with the opportunity to have individuals grow alongside their business, and for their customers, it means they have access to highly experienced individuals who have vast knowledge of the products they are using.
It is clear the future is digital, and a smart and well-trained workforce is essential to operate within the automated warehouse. Having the ability to train and develop a smart workforce, providing them with the skills and knowledge needed for the increasingly automated, robotic and technology evolution of the industry, is crucial to driving the UK economy.
Training as an apprentice to then qualifying as an engineer provides a critical route to combat the rising levels of unemployment, and gives future generations the skills needed in order to develop within the industry. Especially since the materials handling industry and logistics industries are growing rapidly, it is now the perfect opportunity to provide the training and skills required, encouraging growth of the UK economy as we move towards more efficiency, productivity and innovation.