Can you smell teen spirit?

Posted on 3 Jun 2010 by The Manufacturer

The negative perception of manufacturing within important demographics like young people has become something of a cliché. Most people agree that, as a sector, its image needs modernising. But, as Jane Gray finds out, young people are beginning to get a better impression.

The furore of the general election campaign in May culminated in the final gaudy but popular prime ministerial televised debate, involving an impassioned discussion about manufacturing’s role in rebalancing the economy and how the main parties intend to enable that cause.

The three would-be PMs discussed ways to support economic recovery linked to the need to provide employment for the UK’s struggling workforce. This topic found particular resonance with the youngest voters watching the debate, according to a poll by The Times showing unemployment to be young voters’ biggest concern. This is not wholly surprising, when you consider that as of May 12 unemployment hit a record high of 2.51 million, of which 941,000 are 16 to 24-year olds.

The alignment of these employment issues and economic regeneration in the public eye exposes the way in which the UK’s industrial needs have failed to be communicated to the job market or fed effectively into the skills development of the workforce.

However, this alignment is also an opportunity.

Under the conditions of youth culture the issues of a manufacturing renaissance and job opportunities have been cast under the same spotlight, and there follows a real chance to highlight the potential of manufacturing as a career destination for young people today.

The importance of taking this opportunity should not be underestimated. There is a great deal of work going forward in the continuing professional development of our workforce, but if UK manufacturing is to develop the capability it desires in emerging markets and advanced technologies and follow the strategy for growth set out in publications like the Government’s white paper New Industry:New Jobs then it is the next generation of workers who need to be enthused and made aware of the opportunity that the sector holds for them.

Today, this is far from the reality. Statistics from this year’s National Strategic Skills audit by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills show that from 2001 to 2009 there was a decline in the take up of technical-level jobs in manufacturing such as metal making operatives and quality assurance technicians. Moreover, the top five fastest growing occupations included jobs in legal services and leisure or theme parks. Both of these growth areas displayed rises of over 100%, showing that the service sector is still far outstripping industry in creating and filling job opportunities in the UK.

If she can do it, I can do it
It is true that the decline in manufacturing intake can be attributed to falling demand as processes are offshored and disruptive technology causes certain jobs to become redundant. However, this is too easy an escape from the additional explanation that industry is not taking responsibility for communicating job opportunities to the emerging workforce or being proactive in influencing their career choices while their opinions and interests are still malleable.

It is also easy to say that this task is the remit of teachers and careers advisors, but Science for Careers, a report from the Science and Society Expert Group, identifies that careers advice is generally outdated and inaccessible. It needs to change so that users feel that it “is their information, available for them, in a way that they want to use it,” the report says. This feeling is echoed by Cogent, the Sector Skills Council, whose research canvassing the opinions of 2,000 14-16 year olds showed that only 5% included their careers advisors as a source of influence in their career ambitions (49% confidently stated that their main influencer was themselves and 39% identified their parents as primary motivators).

This information gap is openly recognised by those young people who have managed to defy it and are now enjoying unforeseen benefits from industrial careers. Phoebe Gentleman and Jarryd Lawley, both 17-year old production operatives at Power Panels Electrical Systems, relate their experiences to TM.

Phoebe: “I went to college after I left school to study health and social care but it really wasn’t for me. My mum works at Power Panels and she told me there was opportunity here. I thought it couldn’t hurt to find out some more about it and found a really good job that was something I could see I would progress in. My school was quite open about telling us that there were other options apart from ‘A’ levels and telling us that you can keep getting qualifications at work, but I know some people at grammar school and all they ever get told is about going to university.” Jarryd: “I left school and went to a construction college for a year and a half butthere was nowork out there. My Mum has worked here [Power Panels] too for five years and progressed from the bottom and is working her way up. I thought: if she can do it, I can do it. My school didn’t really tell me about options of going straight into work, and my friends who have gone to college have got some really wrong ideas about what goes on in manufacturing. They just like paperwork – they don’t want to get their hands dirty and they want to be at the top straight away. I want to work my way up.”

Power Panels
Alison Dowd, manufacturing manager at Power Panels, recognises that capturing two such motivated young people as Jarryd and Phoebe has been an asset which the company could easily have missed. “Both Jarryd and Phoebe left education with an idea of what they wanted to do, and it did not include working in a factory. Family influence and their own work ethic brought them to us and we took them on because they are hard-working and care about what they do.

I believe that these two guys will do really well.

They’re not sure yet what they want, they’re just reaching for the stars but with a bit of systematic education in the work place I hope they will progress to be our managers in the future – because I don’t want to do this forever!” Speaking further on the subject of work ethic, Dowd said: “I really don’t know what is going on in schools to prepare young people for work. Often I find that the young people who come here without a family link or local knowledge of the factory are not confident of what they want of get from our opportunities. They are not prepared for being interviewed and have no idea how to communicate with me as a potential employer. It must really hold a lot of young people back from getting their foot in the door with their first job.” While it is great for some companies to capture the proactive talent of young people like Phoebe and Jarryd, the potential interest which could be unlocked if young people were better informed about the variety of jobs and routes into manufacturing work is huge. Rachel Hockaday, an apprentice from Kawasaki Precision Machinery in Plymouth, agrees.

Rachel is currently studying for her NVQ Level 3 in Performing Engineering Operations, which is provided by leading vocational awards body, EAL.

Please Sir, may I know some more?
“I’ve never been good at sitting down and learning but have done well when I can get hands-on,” Rachel says. “Unfortunately, the school I went to didn’t give information about apprentice routes so I went straight to college because I thought that’s just what you do next. I was able to take a BTEC National diploma there that really sparked my interest in engineering but I quickly realised I didn’t want to do more further education but to be gain qualifications while working. That’s when I found out about apprenticeships and NVQs.

“At careers evenings at school we had people from loads of different universities, but we never really had anyone from any businesses. It’s a bit better now in schools but I definitely feel that if employers or even just careers advisors could highlight apprenticeships and were able to explain clearly what they entailed loads more people would want to go into manufacturing and engineering.

“My own ideas about manufacturing have changed a fair bit since I took up my apprenticeship. It’s not the clock-in, clock-out day that I thought it might be. It’s way more varied and skilled. There’s problem solving and programming, quality work and lots of communication between functions which is exciting. If I could speak to teachers and careers advisors in schools now my key message would be: don’t dismiss apprenticeships. It’s been the best possible route for me, but I could have got here a lot quicker if there had been more information early on.”

Business is child’s play
There is evidence, however, that this lack of communication and information is being redressed – and in the most dynamic and engaging way. On Thursday April 28, The Manufacturer attended an inspirational event run by The Manufacturing Institute’s Make It campaign. This event, the grand finale in a series of Enterprise Challenges, tasked teams of children aged 13-14 from schools across the north-west with creating micro-businesses for a specific product development initiative. They would then compete in front of a Dragon’s Den-style panel of leading regional manufacturers for the prestigious prize of Best Company and Design. This year the winners were from Kirkbie Kendal School, Cumbria.

The teams were required to attribute key business functions, such as finance and marketing directors, manufacturing managers and managing directors, to appropriate team members according to their interests and skills sets. Working together, the children easily overcame the obstacles of silo working and lack of strategic alignment that so often beleaguer adults. They created an overwhelming range of innovative products backed by consideration of the choice of raw materials, environmental regulation, cost restrictions and customer demand.

This process was supported throughout by ambassadors from local manufacturing organisations from a range of sectors. Companies who have taken part over the course of the competition include Jaguar Landover, BAE Systems and Robert Wiseman Dairies. They made themselves available for interrogation about their jobs and even shared information on their salary scales.

To say the children attending this event were surprised and intrigued would be an understatement. Feedback has showed that their perceptions alter from seeing manufacturing as a dead end, low paid, boring and dirty work environment to one of creativity, team work, technology and potential wealth.

Lee McKenna of St Thomas More Catholic High School, Cheshire, said: “I’ve learnt a lot a few new things about what manufacturing involves – there can be a lot more pay in it than I thought for a start and apart from working on machines there’s a lot of technology involved as well as office roles. Also I learnt that I’m quite good at working with teams. I got a special mention for being the best managing director after the first round.” Courteney Leech of Haslingden High School in Lancashire, added: “It’s been really exciting, which is not what I expected when my teacher said we’d find out more about what happens in factories. I was a bit iffy about whether to come but my Mum said ‘what have you got to lose?’ In the first round I was financial director but this time I’m managing director. I really enjoyed being financial director because I’ve always liked maths, but it’s so much more real when you have to use it like this. After today I would definitely give working for a manufacturing company a shot.”

Where do we go from here?
Schemes like the Make It campaign and Manufacturing Insight (an independent government body established in 2009 under the wing of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) are battling on several fronts to change outdated preconceptions about manufacturing and show young people how attractive it can be. A passive approach will only result in further job decline as more dynamic industries compete for the best talent emerging from schools and universities.

Nicola Eagleton-Crowther, Make It campaign manager, delivers this parting shot: “The starting point for making manufacturing seem relevant and exciting for kids today is industry itself. Too many people are quietly ashamed of associating themselves and their sector with the word ‘manufacturing,’ preferring to use shinier terms like engineering and product design. If we can’t embrace the terminology ourselves, what does that say to ambitious young minds who want to be proud of what they do?”