This article originally appeared in The Weekend Australian.

I recently spoke at a manufacturing conference and asked the audience if any had children or grandchildren pursuing or interested in pursuing a career in manufacturing. Crickets.

On reflection, I believe this highlights both the importance of the Government’s $1.5 billion manufacturing policy, and the incredible challenge beyond it to revive an industry in danger of being lost. It may have taken a pandemic to get here, but we’re here nonetheless.

Not too little too late

I disagree with criticism that the investment won’t move the needle – the life support model the industry was reliant on in the past decade was incredibly damaging and kept Australia tethered to subsections of manufacturing that are simply not tenable.

Yes, our national pride may have taken a hit with the end of Holden, but the hard truth is this kind of manufacturing isn’t sustainable in Australia and was living on borrowed time.

The focus on advanced manufacturing and six priority areas set out in the budget policy – resources and critical minerals, food and beverages, medical products, recycling and clean energy, defence, and space – will, or at least can, work.

Further, the minor but much needed inclusion of nearly $30 million to help companies leverage digital tools to readjust their operations and processes will encourage some overdue focus on efficiency on the factory floor. I’ve seen failure here cause the demise of many ailing manufacturers and hinder successful ones more than they realise.

Evolution from blue to white collar

The real challenge we need to address is the brain drain from the sector, which if left unchecked will limit or nullify the impact of this investment.

Australian manufacturing has an ageing workforce, with the most experienced and brightest expected to retire over the next decade. Compounding this problem, the industry is not seen as a desirable career path for our youth. Who will manage our revived industry and lead Australia to become a global leader?

We need to change a number of perceptions – notably:

  • Manufacturing is not a zombie industry in Australia.
  • The emergence of technology, robots and artificial intelligence (AI) will not negate the need for human involvement.

The budget policy goes some way to addressing point one – the Government has made it clear the industry is a priority for jobs and the economy.

On point two, I firmly reject the idea that human involvement on the factory floor will disappear. Rather, we have an opportunity to create a much stronger connection between operational workers and the performance of the assets, machines, and the business at large.

This is already echoed in Australia’s IT industry – while it has grown, much of its story on the frontline has involved IT teams fighting to keep the lights on rather than contributing to the business at a strategic level.

That story is changing – businesses’ demand on technology and the advent of cloud and automation of more tedious tasks have evolved the role of IT. We need the same approach in manufacturing, and to connect the industry to technology in a much deeper way.

STEM-level campaign

STEM has been highly successful at driving awareness and pursuit of jobs in the greater technology industry. We don’t necessarily need to add a second ‘M’ to it, but we must inject that same energy and industry collaboration to change future generations’ perception of manufacturing.

The industry needs to connect to STEM and the wider buzz around careers in those areas. The factory of the future must be seen as a desirable place to work, with the necessary flexibility and opportunity built in and an environment where workers can apply their increasing level of skill.

We can achieve this by educating the next generation of ‘operational specialists’, who will become the highly valued intermediary between managing data-driven production metrics and senior management’s business strategy.

Manufacturing must reinvent itself to fit into the industry category of an information technology leader if it is to attract the best young talent. Then, the use of technology can be applied to enhance the appeal of working in manufacturing for future skilled workers and operational experts.

The industry must work with another successful export industry (pandemic aside): education. Some savvy manufacturers have been tapping into universities and other tertiary institutions for many years, aiming to match the career paths on offer to what the modern student wants, and develop mutually beneficial graduate programs.

The future of Australia’s manufacturing has been given the injection it needed – now it is time to tap into our tremendous knowledge bank and recreate the industry in terms of brain, not brawn.

James Magee is the Chief Executive Officer of OFS, a company That strives to help manufacturers make better decisions. Prior to his role as CEO, James worked as the Global Sales Director for OFS, expanding the organisations operations into eight countries. With over 15 years of experience in the manufacturing industry, James has sighted over 500 factories in multiple industries. He strongly believes that people and processes are both the key to manufacturing efficiency.