Present and future workforce challenges for UK manufacturers

Present and future workforce challenges for UK manufacturers

January 30, 2024

Near the top of the list of worries that keep many manufacturing bosses awake at night is hiring and retaining the right talent for an industry being overwhelmed by helter skelter technological change.

Recruiting enough people was already a problem in a tight labour market, but the emphasis is increasingly moving away from the number to getting hold of staff with the right skill sets in a world of rapidly advancing technology.

The industry’s labour statistics

According to data from Statista, UK manufacturers employed 2.52m people in Q1 2023. This is well under half the workforce of 4.37m in Q1 1997 and almost unrecognisable from a figure of over 7m in 1973.  Manufacturing represents 7.6% of UK employment.

Only a quarter of employees are female, despite how far and for how long the industry has been moving away from heavy labour and towards dominance by automation and robotics. A fifth of the workforce is aged 55 or older.

The workforce challenges facing manufacturers

Negative public perceptions

Whether accurate or not, there is a major issue with how manufacturing environments and conditions are viewed, focussed on poor cleanliness and noise as well as career prospects. Too many outsiders still think of the sector in terms of mundane heavy labour rather than technology and innovation.

Workplace safety concerns

Here too, public perception may not match present day realities, but the manufacturing workplace is seen as a dangerous and an unhealthy environment. For every immaculate modern production line, there is an offsetting image of conditions shown in media coverage of the likes of steel blast furnaces.

Lack of flexibility

The pandemic has brought the work from home phenomenon front and centre into the thinking of potential recruits in all sectors. The very nature of manufacturing makes offering this flexibility inherently difficult and for some jobs, impossible.

Increasing need for tech-related skills

If early generations of robotics had not already uprated the skill levels needed in manufacturing, the rapid incursion of AI and machine learning has taken skill shortages to a whole new level. The issues this has raised are discussed in more detail in our recent blog.

Mental health support issues

Manufacturing faced a wide range of challenges during the pandemic, to the extent that one study showed an 86% spike in burnout among workers during 2020. Now those anxieties are being exacerbated by the seemingly unstoppable progress of AI and its potential impact on jobs. A recent study showed that 34% of UK manufacturing companies confirm having an employee leave because their mental wellbeing wasn’t being cared for.

Effective management of  younger workers

Companies are being exhorted to recruit younger staff to reduce the risk of a manufacturing ‘great retirement’ over the next five to ten years and to bring in more appropriate skillsets for a technology-driven future.

This comes with its own issues. A YouGov survey highlighted that manufacturers found Millennials (those between their late 20s and early 40s) to be the most challenging to oversee, with 48% of the sector saying they struggled most with this generation. Firms will need to adapt to managing this cohort for future growth.

Lack of diversity

Unfortunately for an issue which by common consent needs addressing, there is a surprising lack of publicly available recent research into diversity issues within the manufacturing workforce, beyond the mismatch between male and female staff. Without embracing and encouraging diversity and making their commitment to it clear, businesses are missing out on significant numbers of potential recruits.

An ageing workforce

While the UK fares better than some competitors by only having 20% of its manufacturing workers aged 55 or older (in the USA it’s 25% and in Canada 22%), the reality is that there is an age demographic issue which not only limits the availability of sufficiently modern skills but also threatens the overall size of the labour pool as these older generations retire.

What can manufacturers do to address these challenges?

There is no single silver bullet, but upskilling older employees whilst also attracting and retaining younger employees should be the principal objective. The many possible strategies might include:

  • Welcoming rather than resisting technological progress.
  • Introducing sustainable work practices.
  • Creating a modern workplace.
  • Keeping pay levels competitive.
  • Investing constantly in work-related training and development at all levels in the workforce.
  • Supporting further education, particularly among younger staff.
  • Setting up mentorship programmes for more junior employees.
  • Recognising and rewarding performance through a robust and transparent performance management system.
  • Fostering inclusivity and diversity across the workforce.
  • Encouraging staff to develop a better work-life balance.

Seeking expert advice

None of this is either easy or straight forward and attempting to make this progress without calling in independent professionals will test the bandwidth and skillsets of many management teams and HR departments.

Incorporating the knowledge from business experts into your manufacturing business is an excellent investment that can benefit your business in both the short and long term.


If you are seeking professional advice for your business, Opus is here to help. You can speak to one of our Partners who can discuss options with you. We have offices nationwide and by contacting us on 020 3326 6454, you will be able to get immediate assistance from our Partner-led team.