The number of factories turning out products in the UK is falling as jobs move east. However, demand for manufacturing IT specialists is increasing.
Nikki Brain, associate director at recruitment consultancy Hudson, explained, "There are some obvious trends. Some manufacturers are moving towards distribution. And some are taking away the hardware part and moving into intellectual property and high-spec consultancy work."
Satnam Brar, managing director of enterprise resource planning recruitment specialist Maximus, said, "There seems to be an assumption, because of the high profile of such sectors as financial services that the market for IT specialists in manufacturing is dying off, but nothing could be further from the truth."
Brain has seen others capitalise on manufacturing's move abroad. "What we are seeing is other sectors dipping into manufacturing skills. The retail sector, for example, is taking production and engineering people because of their experience with quality programmes such as Six Sigma."
Like retailers, manufacturers are recruiting to improve their supply chain. Ready control over where supplies are going has become more crucial owing to the global nature of the industry. Manufacturers are therefore doing a lot of work with ERP software, and most often the software is provided by German supplier SAP.
"SAP is dominating every market at the moment," said Adam Stokes, operations manager of recruitment website The IT Job Board.
Mark Verghese, director at IT recruiter Greythorn, pointed to a problem. "The talent pool for these types of skills is very definitely finite. Consequently, although the market for people within the manufacturing sector is buoyant, demand far exceeds supply."
Brain said that, thanks to competition, average salaries are creeping up. However, Stokes pointed out that not all employers are aware of the situation, particularly for SAP specialists.
"People say they are looking for SAP people, but they seem surprised that there is a lot of competition out there. Recruiters are catching up, but the clients have not noticed as quickly how competitive the market is," Stokes said.
Rates have also improved with the change in role for senior IT professionals in manufacturing. "The profile of people we are putting back into manufacturing is increasing. The expectation is that the people have very good commercial skills. They are not just plant managers, they have a lot more responsibility," said Brain.
Brar agreed that salaries for people with manufacturing IT skills were moving up, but said, "They are never going to compare with those on offer in organisations such as investment banks."
Manufacturers can also offer good training, and its value is well understood by companies looking for people with quality-oriented skills.
Keith Harding, manufacturing manager at RM, which supplies computers to educational institutions, said that an image of manufacturing as old-fashioned and grimy can put potential recruits off, although the reality is different at many of the high-technology manufacturers.
Martin O'Dowd, director of ERP at engine manufacturer Rolls-Royce, said diversity of work was a draw. "Within the company, the opportunity to work on a broad range of process improvement projects is quite attractive. But it is hard to get good-quality IT people in the UK," he added.
Brar said a move overseas could prove lucrative for those with supply chain experience. "For the foreseeable future it seems that there will continue to be a healthy market for Oracle and SAP consultants, but much of it will be based on the European continent, rather than here in the UK," he added.
For those who know how the sausage is made, there are IT jobs to be had, although they may not have to deal with the production process itself.
Rolls-Royce: it's all about the process
Jonathan Mitchell, CIO and director of business process improvement at Rolls-Royce, came to the company four years ago from pharmaceuticals firm GlaxoSmithKline, as Rolls-Royce began to rethink how it did business.
"It happened in the 1990s with the ramp-up in manufacturing for the Trent engine programmes. It became clear that the processes needed to change in the company," said Mitchell.
The changes mean that Rolls-Royce is different to other companies, he said. "We probably have quite a different take. We see IT as an underpinning of a change programme strategy. We have found that is the best way to get results."
A manufacturing background is important in being able to deliver the systems at Rolls-Royce, said James Hamilton, director of manufacturing systems. "Although IT is vital to making a better decision," he added.
Hamilton moved to his current role from the car industry six years ago, having built up experience in lean production and the kaizen manufacturing techniques used there.
"Bringing IT people into manufacturing and calling them manufacturing people does not tend to work. Having people with the manufacturing literacy behind them is a better way of delivering a positive outcome," he said.
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This was first published in January 2007