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In a recent report by The Royal Society of Motorists, 75 per cent of manufacturers stated that they were concerned about an ageing workforce. However, it’s not just the automotive sector that is facing this issue. Field service across many manufacturing disciplines has a workforce that is generally nearing retirement, meaning that we are about to lose their expertise and knowledge. Could generative AI help solve the problem?

Here Stephen Hayes, Managing Director at , delves into the challenges of attracting young people to the manufacturing sector and explores the potential role of AI in bridging the generational gap.

The manufacturing industry is currently grappling with the challenges posed by an ageing workforce. As skilled workers approach retirement age, the sector is faced with a diminishing pool of knowledge and experience, resulting in a potential loss of invaluable institutional expertise.

The physical demands of manufacturing jobs, such as heavy lifting and climbing, also become more pronounced with age, leading to concerns about workplace safety and the increased risk of injuries.

Additionally, there is a pressing need for upskilling and adapting to rapidly evolving technologies — a task that can be particularly daunting for older workers.

Lack of interest

A poll carried out by Sheffield Hallam and Savanta showed that 93 per cent of people surveyed thought that the UK manufacturing industry is important for growing the UK economy, an increase from 70 per cent just five years ago.

However, if this is the case, then why are so many young people not interested in pursuing a career in the manufacturing sector?

This lack of interest from young people is creating an ageing manufacturing workforce — in fact just two per cent of manufacturers’ average workforce age is below the age of 30, according to a study by University of Strathclyde.

Those born in generation Z often think that working in the manufacturing industry is an old-fashioned, tedious job, with few opportunities to develop within the role. But manufacturing is moving to an age of digitalisation, with Industry 4.0, the implementation of Internet of Things (IoT) and artificial intelligence (AI), this revolution could not only potentially attract a younger workforce but also aid the ageing one too.

The potential of generation Z

People born in generation Z (1997 – 2012) are a product of the digital age. Unlike any generation before, they entered a world where the internet, smartphones and social media were not just prevalent but integral to daily life.

From a young age, Gen Z individuals navigated a digital landscape, learning to communicate, access information and form connections through various online platforms. This has not only shaped their communication styles but has also developed a unique ability to adapt to rapidly changing digital environments.

Growing up in the era of instant information, generation Z is characterised by its ‘tech-savvy’ nature and an inherent comfort with using technology to navigate the complexities of the modern world.

A recent survey conducted by the United Nations asked 254 young people (aged between 10 to 24 years old) from 36 different countries for their opinions on AI. The findings were overall favourable with 93.2 per cent saying they have a positive perception of AI and robotics, 68 per cent stating that they trust AI, and 80 per cent saying that they interact with AI multiple times a day.

Both the fourth industrial revolution of the manufacturing industry and the implementation of automation and AI have the potential to attract younger workers that are skilled and knowledgeable into the sector.

Opportunities for young people

AI creates a demand for new skills in areas such as machine learning, data analytics and AI programming. This in turn generates opportunities for young individuals to acquire and develop these in-demand skills, enhancing their employability and making the manufacturing sector more appealing.

The integration of AI in manufacturing also expands the range of career paths available. It’s not only about traditional roles but also involves positions related to AI development, data analysis and system optimisation, providing a diverse array of career options for young professionals. It also introduces innovative technologies and advanced automation, providing young workers with an opportunity to engage with state-of-the-art tools and systems.

The pull of working with AI-driven solutions can attract those who are enthusiastic about the latest advancements in technology. AI facilitates connectivity and collaboration on a global scale — young workers may be attracted to manufacturing roles that involve working with teams and technologies from around the world, offering a sense of global engagement and diversity, which can be seen to be lacking in the manufacturing sector.

Aiding an ageing workforce

AI and automation systems emerge as transformative solutions to address the challenges faced by an ageing workforce in the manufacturing industry. Here, it can act as a supportive force, augmenting the capabilities of older workers by automating routine tasks and mitigating the physical strains associated with manual labour.

Personalised, adaptive learning programmes driven by AI facilitate continuous upskilling, enabling older employees to stay up to date with technological advancements. Also, to facilitate the ageing workforce, AI-powered collaborative robots can work alongside seasoned professionals, assisting with physically demanding tasks and forging a human-machine partnership.

Additionally, AI-driven predictive maintenance systems enhance workplace safety by foreseeing equipment issues, reducing the risk of unplanned downtimes and potential injuries.

By using AI technologies, manufacturers can not only retain the expertise of their ageing workforce but also create an inclusive and dynamic environment that maximises productivity and ensures a seamless knowledge transfer to future generations.

Currently, there are around 95,000 unfilled positions within the manufacturing industry according to a survey conducted by Made UK. Of course, AI cannot replace the decades of knowledge from older experts in the field. However, embracing AI in manufacturing not only helps to address the challenges of an ageing workforce but also takes a proactive step in attracting the next generation to fill these open positions too.