(File pix) Upskilling of the workforce needs to happen. The biggest challenge in implementing industrial innovation is a lack of technical skills.

AS digital transformation gains momentum, the manufacturing industry is challenged to a bold rethink of old business and operating models. Yet, Malaysia is considered to be lagging behind in terms of the rapidly changing technology-driven innovation.

But, with the recently announced 2019 Budget we can see that Malaysia signals an increasing strength in its manufacturing sector. Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng said the government will allocate RM210 million from 2019 to 2021 to support the transition and migration of the country’s industries to Industry 4.0.

This transition will undoubtedly require a large number of talents with the relevant skills.

Challenging and training employees to acquire new expertise can be a cost-effective way to manage staff resourcing, provide a boost to employee engagement, and ultimately have a positive impact on a company’s productivity.

There are several areas manufacturers should consider when reviewing the training needs of their workforce and providing opportunities for upskilling.

One, by breaking down barriers between departments. With the current trend for automation and data exchange in manufacturing technologies, it is time to reimagine work practices and stop relying on working in operational silos that have been created around job descriptions.

Manufacturers, instead, need to review tasks — including labelling, packaging, and shipping — rather than job roles, to reap the benefits of digital data sharing.

Software platforms, such as modern enterprise resource planning (ERP), provide employees across departments with real-time information and a 360-degree picture of what’s happening in the business.

By allocating tasks to both machines and people, manufacturers can ensure an efficient level of automation, freeing up employees’ time to focus on new, less manual and more skilled tasks that deliver greater value to the business.

Two, identifying where upskilling needs to happen. Beefing up engineering talent on the shop floor is, without a doubt, vital; however, skills gaps higher up in the business are just as pressing.

Manufacturers should, therefore, think about technical knowledge and skills gaps, but also consider potential gaps in management and leadership skills.

In fact, Stanton Chase’s 2017 Global Industrial Executive Survey shows that for 30 per cent of companies, the biggest challenge in implementing industrial innovation is a lack of technical skills, but 20 per cent say the same of leadership skills such as change management. Bringing in a development and training specialist can help manufacturers perform a skills gap analysis to ensure that any training plan is not only going to address the current pressure points, but also future-proof the company.

Three, aligning training to the overarching business strategy. Forward-thinking leadership teams are developing their workforce upskilling strategy—a task that has historically been the responsibility of human resource — as an integral part of their strategic business planning process.

This planning process includes a comprehensive review of how external trends are affecting existing structures, jobs and skills across the business.

It considers which roles are strategic and core to the business, which ones will appear, and which will change or disappear completely.

Technology can play a key role in this strategic planning process, using real-time, data-driven insight to analyse and review where training is required across an entire manufacturing business.

Specifically, software such as modern enterprise resource planning (ERP), customer relationship management (CRM),

and manufacturing execution systems (MES), can deliver actionable insight on a company wide scale — from core business processes, to interactions with customers and manufacturing operations.

By using the insights that data from these systems can offer, businesses can uncover opportunities to educate the workforce at every level.

Four, understanding the scale and time frames. Helping employees to upskill in this fast-changing world of work also needs to happen at speed and to scale. The skills revolution that we are seeing goes hand-in-hand with innovations, and as new technologies emerge, the skills requirements will change. In order to keep pace with changes in the sector, manufacturers need to consider upskilling an ongoing long-term investment and develop strategies for continuous upskilling, or “lifelong learning” of their employees.

As the pace of technological change increases, manufacturers need to act to ensure they are not constrained by an increasing gap between supply and demand for talent.

Technologies like modern ERP and MES solutions are fast becoming the foundation for digital transformation in manufacturing by functioning as the fabric that connects people, processes, data and things in an intelligent and strategic manner.

A skilled and agile workforce that can successfully use these technologies can enable manufacturers to rise to the challenges presented by 4IR.

These companies will then, in turn, be in a strong position to navigate the ever-changing economic and international business environment, improve productivity, and drive future business growth.

Vincent Tang is Asia’s regional vice-president of Epicor, a global business software company