Advancing the People Side of Advanced Manufacturing

Prairie Manufacturer Magazine had the chance to sit down with Stewart Cramer, Chief Manufacturing Officer, and Kelly O’Neill, Director of Education & Training, with NGen – Canada’s Advanced Manufacturing Supercluster to talk about what the group is working on related to education and development of Canada’s manufacturing workforce. 

Prairie Manufacturer (PM): NGen is a rather unique organization in that you’ve got a broad mandate to work on advanced manufacturing across Canada, but not just in a specific sub-sector. Not to mention you’re also working with partners and organizations beyond the manufacturing sector, like educational institutions, academia, and tons of other private- and public sector groups, and you’re not just focused on operations or efficiency.

What has NGen been doing related to the people side of advanced manufacturing?

What really came back as the number one concern of Canadian manufacturers is workforce; that we won’t have enough of the right people trained in the right areas. There are tremendous gaps and there are more coming.

We see a tidal wave of retirements coming, and manufacturers don’t have good answers for how they’re going to staff their businesses going forward. The challenges are compounded because of all the changes associated with Industry 4.0.

Canada has an existing workforce that is highly skilled and well trained, but not necessarily prepared for everything that’s coming down the pike. What NGen has broadly focused on is what we call creating the workforce of the future and creating the more capable companies of the future to employ those workers, 

There are a couple of paths we’ve gone down, one of which is upskilling. As COVID-19 began to hit, we recognized that manufacturing workers were being underutilized; they were either being employed part-time or being furloughed and sent home.

We recognized that there’s great training available, but it’s not always easy for companies to find. It’s also not always easy for companies to know what to do, so we created a program around existing training that would support companies in both their transformation and transition toward Industry 4.0 and for their short- to-medium-term survival. NGen pays half of the training fees for the courses we have approved.

We’ve also invested in the workers of the future and youth skills development. We’ve created a website called Careers of the Future intended to help young people see themselves in manufacturing careers and to dispel some of the myths around careers in manufacturing. We’re also supporting a project called Virtual Robotics Training Academy, which is a phenomenal way for young people to learn how to program industrial robots.

We’re doing some work around leadership development and transformation to help manufacturers – especially SMEs – better understand how to drive their companies in the future and keep people at the centre of what they’re doing. After all, it’s always about people, not just process. This program, the Transformation Leadership Program or TLP offers some unique tools to help companies develop and successfully execute transformation strategies with a real focus on team alignment and achieving well-defined and measurable outcomes.

We’ve really got a kind of wide base of programming, and we’re also looking to partnerships with business schools around work-integrated learning and internships.

PM: There’s been coverage in the news lately that for us to get younger people more interested in manufacturing as a career, we need to get to them when they’re super young; that high school and after is simply too late. What role does NGen playing in working with these younger cohorts?

SC: We’re doing some of that with our Careers of the Future, though that’s really aimed more at kids in high school. The heart of what we’re really trying to do is connect the dots, because a lot of the things that kids do in and out of school are very much like what they would do in a manufacturing career. It’s about helping them understand that manufacturing jobs are clean, safe, technically advanced, and incredibly rewarding.

Kelly O’Neill (KO): When we think about workforce development, it’s incumbent on us to consider the entire lifecycle from being a student to being an adult learner.

NGen has a broad mandate, and we’re starting to roll out a variety of pieces across the different periods of the student life cycle, and we are doing some important work with The Martin Family Initiative that recognizes the contributions advanced manufacturing can make to economic reconciliation. Working with Indigenous learners from grade 6 through adult learners, NGen & the MFI recognizes this opportunity to invite Indigenous peoples into this critical transformation of the workforce.

I think, yes, absolutely, we must start younger. People have started their career planning by high school, so we need to engage with the younger students and their educators.

What’s interesting right now in our society – business and beyond – is that we have an entire workforce of people who went to school in in a way that school doesn’t look like anymore, so we need to be able to speak to many different groups in many ways.

The high tech is great, but high touch is also very important, and we’re working to carry a variety of resources that will be applicable to all sorts of industries within advanced manufacturing but to varying comfort levels and specific learning styles. We’re looking into some exciting diagnostics that have been developed and widely piloted.

PM: How is the work that you’re doing different than what’s been done in the past for workforce development for the manufacturing sector?

SC: I think one of the things we’ve done differently, is, as Kelly mentioned, taken a very broad perspective and in a real sense, identified our constituents as the Canadian workforce of the future no matter where they are in their journeys today. Some of them are already working, and others are still in elementary school, secondary and post-secondary schools across the country.

Another thing we’re doing that’s different is helping companies understand the relationships between their future employees and the types of relationships that are needed to be successful.

One of the gaps that we’re trying to address with our Transformational Leadership Program (TLP) is that companies who take on a digital transformation fail about 80 per cent of the time. This is typically not because the technology doesn’t work. It’s really about leadership; it’s about what value proposition they’re trying to achieve, what projects they’re taking on, how are they are strategizing and launching them, and how they execute.

A lot of it ties back to people, and so a big part of the TLP is around people-centric leadership, and the people-side implications of Industry 4.0. It’s about change management, and we’re hoping that by creating this more virtuous cycle, we can build that workforce, but we can also build the relationships between the companies and their future employees.

We’re trying to make connections all over the ecosystem, and we’re trying to be the bridge between industry and academia and between industry and primary and secondary education. It’s those relationships that are going to result in young people making choices to pursue careers in manufacturing in Canada.

There are a lot of groups that have approached this in bits and pieces, and I think they’ve done some really good work. There’s a lot of great stuff out there, but not many people are approaching things in a holistic way. And it has to be approached holistically, because we need to look at what those careers are going to look like over the full career lifecycle, which means how do we create lifelong learning.

PM: NGen is really looking at these challenges through a different lens, aren’t you?

SC: Absolutely. Typically, manufacturing programs focus on engineering schools. We’ve focused on the business schools, because NGen’s mandate is to build highly profitable, successful, growing manufacturing businesses for Canada. That’s how you create a sustainable workforce, and it’s how you drive our economy forward.

We’ve spoken with business schools across Canada to discuss manufacturing as a business, and the conversations have been quite interesting. Some of the business schools say that we should be speaking with the engineering school, and we say ‘well, we’re talking about businesses that happen to manufacture, not people who like to build stuff, who might like to make a buck every now and then.’

NGen is interesting because, first, we’re sector agnostic. Second, we have a broad charter to be a connector. We try to be a bridge in that we have domain expertise in manufacturing and technology, but we also have extensive expertise in education and training.

We’re trying to find a way to be multilingual and speak to all of those stakeholders. We’re the organization that brings them together at the table  to say, ‘Hey, Canada has a problem we have to solve together.”

There are 1.7 million jobs in manufacturing in Canada, and it’s 10 per cent of our GDP. Let’s not just protect it, let’s grow it to make sure those jobs are there, and that those good jobs become better jobs.

I think it’s a unique opportunity because of the way the supercluster’s been set up. We get to be that middleware, and we don’t have to pick one side or the other. We bring people together to facilitate dialogue and let the ideas start to percolate, then we can support them with projects and training.

In some cases, we’re creating new training or encouraging universities and colleges to create micro-credentials from existing programs. In other cases, we’re just facilitating and promoting the great work they’ve already done, and, because of our charter, we can do both. We’re not competing with anybody. We’re just here to make sure everybody wins and, at the end of the day, manufacturing flourishes.

PM: Do you find there’s any issues with territoriality in the networks or groups you’re facilitating or working with? How do you get around that, or better yet, how do you work with it?

SC: We just love seeing cool manufacturing projects. We’ve found brilliance everywhere we’ve looked, including some great projects in the Prairies.

One thing we do is find capable people around Canada who are doing work that we think is complementary. We constantly make the introductions to facilitate the connections between companies, groups, and institutions. It’s a kind of cluster-building, because at the end of the day, we’re too small a country, population-wise, to not take advantage of all our strengths, regardless of geography

When we learn of best practices in one part of the country, we’re going to share it widely and make as many connections as possible between all sorts of smart people.

We’ve made huge investments in education, training, and manufacturing in every province and territory, but it’s been fragmented. Through NGen’s Amp Up initiative, we’ve got people taking courses from across the country. I’ve got a company in PEI that signed up for courses with Sask Polytech, UBC’s Sauder School, and the BC Alliance for Manufacturing, as well as industry-based training from Montreal. 

All these courses were developed through public funding (i.e., taxpayer investment), so it’s really a no-brainer to make the connections to get as many Canadians as possible to take the courses and improve our return on investment.