Ditch the modesty

Posted on 12 Apr 2011 by The Manufacturer

Understatement is the curse of British industry. If we want to draw more skills into manufacturing and compete in global markets we need to celebrate career opportunities garishly comments TM's Jane Gray.

As skills correspondent at The Manufacturer I am frequently invited to some fantastic events being held by UK universities, sector skills councils and industry institutions that aim to promote manufacturing as a career destination and also to raise awareness around what skills future manufacturing will involve.

Yet in spite of these events we still hear that concerns over skills gaps, both in the short and longer term, are one of the keenest worries for manufacturing leaders. Where is the disconnect? I would suggest that there is a lack of coordination between local education work carried out by industry representatives themselves and the ambitions of the competitions and exhibitions organised by the Institute of Mechanical Engineers, Semta and the like. In addition is would say that there is a debilitating Britishness about the way that much of the above work is marketed.

Take, for example, the recent national finals of the Eurobot competition held at Middlesex university last Friday. The Eurobot competition is a pan-European event that challenges engineering students to build autonomous robots capable of completing set tasks under time control. It is demanding and exciting and the skills being built will be absolutely invaluable to the future of manufacturing in the UK; especially given the comparatively poor uptake of important automation technologies in UK manufacturing at the moment – technologies which could really alter the playing field for industry if they were exploited properly.

Sadly however, only two universities – Middlesex and Imperial College – took part in the UK finals of Eurobot(UK) and while the three winning teams include some highly talented individuals it seems a somewhat limited pool to be drawing our future automations and robotics specialists from.
Lack of publicity around events like the Eurobot competition leads to a situation where, as competitor Darren Lewis observed, the terminology and application of important new technologies, is not understood by the wider public. Indeed it was only by chance the Lewis himself discovered his talent for robotics – it was an element of his product design course of which he had been unaware when he enrolled.

Dr Alex Zivanovic, senior lecturer in Product Design and Engineering at Middlesex university, and a coach to Lewis and his team mate backed up his student’s view and emphasized that directions being taken in approaches to manufacturing were going to make this challenge of communicating what certain skills mean in terms of jobs and career opportunities even more difficult but also ever more important. Zivanovic pointed to the increasingly blurred boundaries between design, engineering and manufacturing and the multidisciplinary knowledge that this trend is likely to demand.

The knock on effect is that it becomes more important everyday that the need for manufacturing and engineering skills, as well familiarity with the new technologies which support them, are communicated boldly. If we compare the Eurobot competition and many other UK and EU events designed to engage young people in the idea of an industrial career with similar event in the US the effort and dynamism with which they are reported and supported is striking.

First Robotics is an obvious comparison to use. This annual competition is aired on TV networks, streamed live to the internet and given air time on the radio. How does it gain such high standing? It has massive industry support and there is no embarrassment about making a big noise. First Robotics attracts sponsorship from a huge array of big hitting industry players as well as local enterprises. The Chrysler Foundation is among its founding partners and other key supporters include General Motors, Motorola, Johnson and Johnson, PTC and Autodesk and they all commit significant time and resources to bringing the best quality equipment and expertise to the competition every year. More importantly however, they are on hand and vocal in telling competitors about how and why they can continue to experience the exciting competition challenges every day in a variety of job roles. They are not reluctant to talk about the links between skills, productivity and wealth and they support the dissemination of their own messages.

Kevin Ison, business manager for Autodesk’s manufacturing solutions in the UK is hopeful of instigating the same levels of engagement and forthright marketing of job opportunities in the UK but told TM that there will be a challenge in overcoming the more “conservative” nature of UK manufacturing.

This conservatism needs to be overcome. Challenges need to be talked about and communicated between industry, academia and industry bodies like the Institute of Mechanical Engineers and then; critically, the aggregated messages about where opportunity lies need to be broadcast wholesale. Manufacturing representatives cannot afford to become complacent because they run an apprenticeship programme or host school visits. A deeper understanding of what skills and technologies mean to the prospects of individuals, companies and nations is needed as is the will to push this understanding to a wider public audience. Future productivity in the UK depends on this.