Like many industries, the manufacturing sector has been impacted profoundly over the past eighteen months. The unprecedented outbreak of the global pandemic, compounded by Brexit negotiations, have left even the most capable organisations struggling to navigate unchartered waters.

Yet amid this chaos, the sector has demonstrated a stern resilience, with the overwhelming majority (94 per cent) of organisations remaining operational throughout. And like most geo-political events, the pandemic uncovered new opportunities for those enterprising enough to capture them, demonstrated by the numerous organisations which repurposed their production lines to aid the pandemic effort.

Proven to be natural problems solvers, all eyes are turning to the manufacturing sector to play a key role in rebuilding our economy. As specialist executive search consultants within the sector, we’ve identified some of the opportunities for manufacturing leaders to build back better in coming months.

Embracing technology and the importance of upskilling and reskilling

Rapid advancements in technology are turning the world of work on its head – in no sector more fundamentally than manufacturing. While at first it was out of necessity, many manufacturers have discovered that automation and digitalisation does far more than reduce costs and drive efficiencies.

To ensure that digital transformation remains a strategic priority, leaders must embrace the need for new digital skills, something which the industry is currently lacking, to support both the adoption of technology and the way it is deployed to rethink existing systems and processes.

This can be achieved by offering additional learning opportunities for team members to build their existing skills and knowledge-base, as well as encouraging proactivity among existing employees. Doing so has the potential to inspire creative, new ways of thinking and build an environment where change improvement is not only encouraged, but celebrated.

Leaders need to consider how they can attract the next generation of creators, makers and innovators. This means looking beyond traditional engineering and manufacturing skillsets to attract those with digital, technological and leadership skills. Limiting candidates to specific sector experience means you are likely to exhaust search and employee referral programmes quickly.

Building resilient, smart supply chains

The Covid-19 pandemic has challenged supply chains and the global logistics that support the transport of parts and goods around the world. What has become apparent is that traditional manufacturing supply chains are too long and complex, meaning that any disruption is damaging.

This has sparked a debate around how future resilience can be built into supply chains, refocusing on suppliers closer to home and expanding supplier options to help mitigate the impact of disruptions in the future. For leaders, this means diversifying supply bases and ensuring that organisations have a range of options available to them, rather than relying on a single supplier in a single location.

It is particularly important for leaders to understand their supply chains and constantly review them. Visibility will highlight pinch points and potential risks, as well as flag any areas that need improvement. This can include identifying where the adoption of technology and smart data could be beneficial in understanding inventory levels, identifying alternative sources of supply and conducting scenario planning.

A whole organisational approach to going green

The government’s target of achieving a net zero carbon economy by 2050 has become much more visible as a result of the pandemic. Manufacturers have recognised the opportunity to build a green recovery and are keen to make the most of it.

For leaders, this means understanding that the impetus behind such change is behavioural, as opposed to systematic, and that it is not just management which needs to evolve, but the culture, structure and processes within an organisation too. Decisions should be made based on values, not simply on cost-effectiveness. Doing so will cultivate a more sustainable company that will be profitable as a result.

Those at leadership level need to accept responsibility for the sustainability of a company and show qualities that were previously never associated with ‘strong’ leadership: humility, vulnerability, transparency, emotional intelligence and giving space to those who know better or those who inspire others. Because unless others are brought on a shared journey, leadership will be completely ineffective.

Covid-19 has presented a new opportunity for building a new economy with a renewed manufacturing sector at its heart. Manufacturers have proved to be natural problem-solvers, injecting fresh ideas to solve some of our biggest challenges. But the biggest challenge is yet to come. Now is the time for manufacturers to grasp the opportunities post Covid-19 to build a digital, global and green economy.