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UK Manufacturers Address the Skills Gap

There is a popular perception in the United Kingdom that foreign workers come over here and take our jobs. However, a quick glance at any industry-related magazine or online news site shows that British manufacturers are suffering from an acute shortage of skilled workers.

Back in April of 2015, just prior to the General Election, the “overpaid and over here issue was being discussed by many of the political parties, prompting the BBC in Warwickshire to do a news piece with prominent local manufacturer, Norbar Torque Tools. MD, Neill Brodie, was keen to point out that his foreign employees were essential to the smooth running of the company.

Having said that, Norbar make huge efforts to employ from the local population, even taking to LinkedIn advertising to seek out and recruit these individuals.

Where are the Millennials in Engineering?

The real problem lies in the lack of buy in to engineering and manufacturing from our young people. They just are not coming into the industry after taking their degree.

And this is a problem that is not exclusive to the UK.  Frank Cavallaro of Fronetics Strategic Advisors wrote recently on this very site that 52% of American teenagers have no interest whatsoever in a manufacturing career.

The most recent U.S. Public Opinions on Manufacturing report by The Manufacturing Institute and Deloitte, saw manufacturing trundle in at the back as the least likely career of choice among Generation Y (ages 19-33 years). Millennials think of the industry as a dead end with minimal opportunity for personal growth or career advancement. This was emphasised by a recent video showing how many young people in the US did not even know what manufacturing was or how important it is to their economy.

The Manufacturing Skills Gap in the UK

So it got me to thinking about how Manufacturing is viewed in the UK.  Certainly both the Manufacturing Institute’s UK Manifesto for 2015 and the last few MAS Barometers have highlighted that the skills gap is a real problem for many business owners in the sector.

I met recently with representatives of several large enterprises in my own corner of South East England.  They confirmed that their employees were drawn as follows:

  • 30% from the UK
  • 30% from the European Union (EU)
  • 30% from non-EU countries

Don't ask me where the other 10% went because they didn't elaborate!

They expressed real concern that there was such a long-term reliance on those employees from non-EU countries; however the shortage of available UK replacements meant that they had no choice.

Like Norbar, many larger businesses have eschewed traditional recruitment consultants in favour of LinkedIn to facilitate their search for staff.  Back in early 2015, an infographic released by the platform boasted 374,711 UK-based engineers and large contingents of university students.  No current stats are available but, judging by the numbers of engineers that I see publishing posts about spare capacity, I'd say that figure is much increased in 2016.

Looking at things from the point of view of British education, the Royal Academy of Engineering reported that the UK will need an additional 800,000 graduates in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects by 2020.

But, even if they were to achieve those numbers of students taking STEM subjects, the stats show that fewer than half of engineering graduates take up a professional engineering job.  

So why is there this resistance? The larger companies that I spoke to all confirmed that they had links with those universities who produced the most employable graduates – Loughborough and Imperial were both mentioned – but there just were not enough graduates coming through.

Growing our own by inspiring them from the outset

From my own perspective, I think the problem starts far earlier – at primary school.  That's where imagination is at its most open.  And, if a child has a dream to become an engineer as a result of something s/he sees in Junior School, the educational path can be mapped out far more easily. With the right guidance, s/he can study the right subjects to gain the grades needed at GCSE and A Level to get into the universities that have the links with the Large Enterprises.

Here in Essex, Anglia Ruskin University ran a huge Engineering event last year featuring 3D printers and other innovations aimed at audiences of all ages to encourage imagination.

The local Fab Lab regularly visits schools in the area and offers practical and technical help to budding innovators of all ages at their centre in Basildon. There are Fab Lab/Maker Dens across the UK.

Nationally, the launch of Sparxx aims to use social media platforms like Pinterest to provide ongoing support for girls between 11 and 18 who show an interest in Creativity, Engineering, Science, Technology and Art (CRESTA).

But to ensure that the enthusiasm of young people is retained, there needs to be a more lucrative stimulation than just the satisfaction of imagination fulfilled.

At the Engineering – What Next event in November 2015, Nitin Patel, the CEO of Redring Xpelair explained that it wasn't enough to just know about engineering. To achieve success, graduates needed to have a good all round knowledge of the commercial aspects of running a business.

He also expounded the theory that young people based their idea of a good career on the type of car driven by different professions.  The flashy sports cars and Range Rovers of solicitors and barristers were a huge draw towards taking a law degree rather than one in engineering.

Our children need more exposure to the rock stars of the engineering world – James Dyson, Alan Sugar— and even Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates because we should not forget software engineers— as well as the robots running the machines at their local factories to see that this is a seriously sexy industry for those with the right business acumen to complement their innovative engineering brains.

Let us know your thoughts on inspiring the next generation of engineers and supply chain pros in the comments section below. 

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