Workforce partners

Industry and academia team up to close the skills gap

Rebecca Lambert
14 January 2019

4 min read

Demand for technological skills in the workplace is rising, but workers who have them are in short supply. To fill the gap, businesses are collaborating with academic institutions to help their workers upskill and adapt to fast-changing job requirements through practical, hands-on training.

In Bondoufle, France, eight miles outside of Paris, construction is underway on CampusFab – a new professional training facility created by a consortium of French manufacturers, including Safran, Fives and GIFAS, along with the ASTech Paris Region aerospace competitiveness cluster. When it opens in September 2019, it will be a place for students, apprentices and workers to acquire and develop the skills they need to work in high-tech “factory of the future” facilities.

“Today, the aviation industry has many challenges,” said Caroline Laizeau, leader of the CampusFab project and general manager of Essonne Faculty of Trades, an apprentice teaching center near the new facility. “The market is experiencing strong growth and, in parallel, many people are retiring. There is a shortage of skills for the factory of the future, which is why we need this training center.”

Already, the facility has captured the attention of a wide range of companies – and not just those in aerospace.

“Initially, it was the aviation industry in the region that expressed this need, but it turns out that many other industrial companies are in the same situation,” Laizeau said.

Industry’s growing need for training support is becoming apparent worldwide, a reaction to the rapidly evolving skills companies need for their workers to master. By 2030, analyst firm McKinsey reports, the time workers will spend using advanced technological skills will increase by 50 percent in the U.S. and by 41 percent in Europe.

“We expect the fastest rise in the need for advanced IT and programming skills, which could grow as much as 90 percent between 2016 and 2030,” McKinsey reported in its May 2018 paper, “Skill Shift: Automation and the Future of the Workforce.” “People with these skills will inevitably be a minority. However, there is also a significant need for everyone to develop basic digital skills for the new age of automation.”


Workers recognize that the outlook for those who fail to update their skills is bleak.

“Workers with skills in demand will prosper; those with outdated skills will be abandoned,” one respondent said in the 2018 “Workforce of the Future” survey by London-based professional services firm PwC.

Companies that traditionally have laid off workers with out-of-date skills, replacing them with recent graduates, no longer have that option, however. Unemployment in many developed nations worldwide is at record lows, and competition for the latest skills is driving up the cost of hiring them. Today, it is in companies’ best interests to retrain their workers.

“We don’t leave our employees on the side of the road,” said Bertrand Delahaye, deputy human resources director at French aerospace manufacturer Safran. Instead, Safran invests 4.5 percent of its payroll in professional training and ensures that 80 percent of its employees receive some form of training at least once a year.

To provide such training, industry leaders and academic organizations are teaming up to launch collaborative initiatives aimed at tackling skill shortages head on. Programs like CampusFab are the result.

Next year, CampusFab will welcome hundreds of apprentices and employees for ongoing training in a practical setting that replicates highly automated factories, including a digital room, additive manufacturing hub and an assembly line equipped with robots and automated carts. The center will give workers the opportunity to learn by doing, sometimes referred to as know-how.

“It’s important when you are an apprentice to have the theory but also a practical, hands-on understanding,” Delahaye said. “For our workers, we will teach them the principles of the factory of the future using real production lines and digital tools.” The program will support training for critical roles, including data engineers and data scientists.

“Many workers must now be capable of mastering data; their professions are constantly evolving,” Delahaye said. “For example, we need people who can work with data as we move towards a model of predictive maintenance. Our training will help people work in a digital environment.”


Experts agree that practical learning is the most effective kind and should begin at the university level.

“We’re a lab-intensive school,” said Joseph Hartman, dean of the Francis College of Engineering at UMass Lowell. “We give our students plenty of hands-on experience; learning shouldn’t just be about reading what stress and strain is from a textbook.” The university-sponsored senior design project is a prime example of hands-on learning.

“We run projects with around 25 companies each year,” Hartman said. “They provide a real industry problem, and our students work on the solution. They must maintain constant communication with the industrial sponsor, providing regular progress updates and so forth. It’s a great way of preparing our students for work.”


Technology skills are only half of what employers seek, however. In Sweden, Otto Ruijs is head of Business Transformation Europe at digital learning specialist Hyper Island, which focuses on the human capabilities needed to work effectively alongside technology. Human capabilities include social and emotional skills that machines are a long way from mastering.

Hyper Island teaches about real business problems through communication among students, avoiding lectures. These methods are designed to provoke discussion and action. (Image © Hyper Island)

“We will continue to need people that have the more ‘soft skills’ to help businesses manage the changes they’re going through,” Ruijs said. “We’re talking about empathy, curiosity and resilience – the things that make us human.”

The ability to communicate effectively and problem-solve is important too. “Today, everyone needs to be able to write a report, send succinct e-mails, stand up and give a presentation,” Hartman said. “They must be culturally savvy and capable of working with globally distributed teams. And they need to be creative. It used to be, ‘I have a problem; what data do I get?’ Now it’s ‘I have all this data; what can I do with it?’”


Many workers are open to change. PwC’s 2018 “Workforce of the Future” study, for example, found that 74 percent say they are ready to learn new skills or retrain to remain employable.

“A continuous learning culture is necessary because society is evolving so rapidly,” CampusFab’s Laizeau said. “We cannot be content with having a skill and not seeking to evolve it.“

Before they leave UMass Lowell, Francis College of Engineering students are encouraged to embrace the idea of lifelong learning.

“It’s something we try to instill in our students,” Hartman said. “It could be as informal as reading your trade articles, all the way through to studying for new qualifications. My comment to business leaders is we sometimes separate industry and academia. But if you want your people to be at the forefront of what they do, we should work together.”

As businesses seek to attract and retain talent, they must be willing to help workers upskill by offering continuous learning options.

“The battleground for companies is going to be talent,” Ruijs said. “People will see the learning facilities in a company as one of the key reasons to join – or not.” Delahaye agreed. “If we really want to attract the best talent, we must offer all stakeholders the most advanced tools to help them train and evolve.” 

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