Manufacturing and engineering skills shortages – why everyone needs to reconsider the sector’s image

Published on 18 May 2018

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Despite UK economic growth falling in the first quarter of 2018, largely due to the severe winter weather and the disruption it brought across all major sectors of the economy, manufacturing and engineering has overall been enjoying a modest boom.

The recent increase in manufacturing and engineering output has boosted sector confidence. Banks and observers are reporting increasing levels of sector investment and continued overseas confidence in ‘Brand GB’. Skills shortages remain the principal blot on the sector’s ability to accelerate.

We’ve previously looked at how individual companies are investing in setting up their own apprenticeship schemes to solve their recruitment and retention challenges. Here we look at some of the practical ways that companies can address their own skills shortages in the long, medium and short term.

Sector perceptions vs reality

A report by Cranfield University in 2017 identified five key reasons underpinning skills shortages in UK manufacturing, three of which put the (mis)perceptions of manufacturing and engineering to the fore, namely:

  • Young people in the UK have less interest in manufacturing related subjects;
  • Female employment in manufacturing is far less than male employment; and
  • Employees have lower income in the manufacturing sector.

The perception clearly remains that work in this key sector is dirty, predominantly male, low skilled and low paid. While industry-wide campaigns from government and sector bodies can help address this over time, one of the most practical things local employers can do is to build links with schools and colleges. These links will help counter students’ outdated perceptions of the sector, its working environment, and future potential for them. Activity can take the shape of visiting schools, or hosting trips to your plant, to see first-hand the working environment.

Many of these preconceptions need scotching early, before young people’s career choices become self-limiting. Whilst employers can make direct contact with local schools themselves – and many do, LEPs like the South East Local Enterprise Partnership provides links via structures such as the Careers Enterprise Company (CEC): this is an employer-led company helping young people explore options for their future career, working in partnership with schools, colleges, employers and youth organisations to create opportunities. Similarly, the Kent County Council (KCC) has eight employer ‘guilds’ designed to bring together employers and education, with one purely designed for Engineering and Advanced Manufacturing and involving more than 200 employers.

Apprenticeships for all?

A medium-term solution is looking at the role which apprenticeships can play in building your business skills-base – at whatever level – and helping recruitment and retention. Despite the fact that the Department for Education (DFE) figures in March showed there had been a 26% drop in the number of industry apprenticeships taken up in the first quarter of 2018 (possibly due to the effects of the Apprenticeship Levy) there is an increasing range of apprenticeships available, across a wide range of subjects, and at many levels. Universities such as Greenwich are actively planning apprentice degree courses, where people are employees first – and students second – offering students the potential of a relevant degree course and debt free study.

Levels of apprenticeships

Name Level Equivalent educational level
Intermediate 2 GCSE
Advanced 3 A Level
Higher 4,5,6 and 7 Foundation degree and above
Degree 6 and 7 Bachelor’s or master’s degree

Become an apprentice – GOV.UK

As Paul Wetherfield CEO of Global Associates, a building and energy management systems (BeMS) company with its own engineering apprenticeships programme, says, “Many youngsters are disincentivised by politics, and disheartened by low wages and the number of unpaid placements. The government continues to push young people into taking university qualifications, but this doesn’t suit everyone. For those who want vocational, hands on experience, an apprenticeship is a fantastic way to make use of these young persons’ strengths.”

However, whilst the government is keen to push apprenticeships as a primary source of new, more skilled labour, there remains the real risk that the concept of an apprenticeship becomes over-extended and too devalued to either address the skills shortage – or to reinforce the perception of delivering ‘skill’. Some employers have used the new emphasis on apprenticeships as an opportunity to generate high-quality standards, but others (including some in the hospitality sector) appear to be simply rebadging low-quality, low-skill and often low-wage roles as ‘apprenticeships’ instead. Industry bodies must ensure that this can’t be allowed to continue in the name of political ‘success’.

The current emphasis on ‘apprenticeships’ also disguises the important role that short term, sometimes intensive, courses can play in re-skilling or upskilling existing employees, often to meet their immediate needs.

Key challenges for management and government alike

Two other main areas of weakness identified in Cranfield’s study also need to be addressed by businesses and government alike.

The lack of applicants with the right skills to fill open posts in the immediate term, often at highly skilled levels, needs to be looked at quickly by Government – especially if they are considering a points-based immigration system: skilled employees from the European Union returning home as result of uncertainty surrounding the status of EU nationals need to be reassured, or encouraged.

Secondly, with UK manufacturing having an ageing workforce which needs replacements quickly, some of the senior management of companies need to look to the future to reframe their thinking and invest in more modern manufacturing techniques soon.
Let’s hope the current increases in manufacturing financial investment are soon matched by similar long-term investments in learning and skills.

For further information please speak to your usual Kreston Reeves adviser or Rodney Sutton here or on +44 (0)330 124 1399.

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