Nick Russel offers his insight on what needs to be done if the nation is to tackle the acute shortage of engineering talent coming through the system.
For years there have been serious concerns raised throughout manufacturing about the widening skills gap witnessed with not enough new engineers entering into the profession to fill the jobs available.
Though many government initiatives and campaigns have been announced with the objective of alleviating this problem, the situation still clearly remains a major worry.
In a survey of UK tech firms conducted by the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) last autumn, 60% said that they saw recruiting engineering staff as the primary obstacle to their businesses’ long-term growth.
If the country is to bounce back after the economic slump that COVID-19 has caused, then finally addressing this issue head-on will be critical.
Companies need to take far more of a lead on this themselves. They must build much stronger ties and have greater engagement at the grass roots level, thereby helping to encourage a bigger proportion of school pupils to consider an engineering vocation.
Tackling the critical issues through partnerships
The importance of finding technically astute youngsters and transforming them into highly capable engineering professionals is something that has been at the heart of Prima Electronic Services for the three decades since it was established.
It comes from the company’s founder Tony Hall, who was himself an apprentice at Pye Ltd back in the 1970s and is a principle that has been carried on by the new management team.
This article first appeared in the September issue of The Manufacturer. Click here to subscribe
Through partnering directly with Cambridge Regional College, Prima was recently able to make significant updates to its apprenticeship programme.
With the goal of enabling young people to take their first steps into a career within the manufacturing engineering industry, this multi-faceted scheme takes two years to complete.
The initial apprentice intake of the new programme began back in January. The entrants split their time between college-based studies and hands-on training at the Prima contract manufacturing site in the nearby Cambridgeshire town of St Ives – with one day a week spent at the former and four days a week at the latter.
The programme has been designed in such a way that each apprentice gets to experience manufacturing engineering from several different perspectives. This means that they will have a more comprehensive appreciation of how the business works.
In addition, this approach means that they get the chance to find out exactly which job functions they have most interest in. They are then better able to decide which particular aspect of engineering they may want to focus on in the future.
Prima offers comprehensive training schemes to encourage young people to take their first steps into a career within the manufacturing engineering industry. Image: Prima
Every four months each of the Prima apprentices is placed into a new department’s operations, moving from one to another over the course of the programme.
Among the areas they will gain expertise in are box build assembly, fault finding/debugging, functional testing and rudimentary PCB layout. They are taught how to operate surface-mount placement machinery as well as learning best practices when it comes to analysing data from X-ray inspection and automated optical inspection (AOI) systems.
Visits to other manufacturing facilities and customers’ sites add another dimension to the training. Through this, the apprentices can find out about different working environments and procedures.
In order for them to gain confidence in taking on their own projects, they are each given one of these as part of their college coursework. The projects allow them to acquire key skills, like time management and problem solving.
Likewise, while at the Prima plant they are tasked with looking at ways that processes might be improved in order to boost productivity or reduce operational costs. They even get to play a small part in product development work.
Apprenticeship schemes and beyond
Given the traction that this programme has already seen, a similar apprentice scheme has now been put in place at Prima’s sister company, battery manufacturing firm Denchi, which is based in Thurso, Scotland.
The apprentices who complete the Prima programme will all obtain a Level 3 qualification in Electrical & Electronic Engineering from Cambridge Regional College. There is then the option for them to continue with an HNC in this subject.
The personal development opportunities continue beyond the apprentice stage. Employees can gain the funding needed to take relevant university courses too.
By way of examples, one of the company’s engineering managers came through the apprentice scheme, later obtained an HNC and further a degree, while another engineering manager was recently funded for their MBA.
Effective, collaborative solutions
As a company, Prima is passionate about attracting the best candidates into engineering. The company collaborates with local schools, supporting electronics and coding clubs as well organising work experience openings, summer jobs and such like.
It is clear though, that right now, all of us need to be doing more. Every company has to take responsibility for forging the next cohort of engineers that will help to drive our economy forward.
In a time when prospects for UK school leavers are likely to be more limited than ever, manufacturers simply cannot cut corners on their apprentice training schemes. It is imperative that, together, we provide an effective route into the engineering arena so that the full potential of young people can be realised.
Nick Russel is chairman of contract manufacturer Prima Electronic Services and battery specialist Denchi Group.
*All uncredited images courtesy of Shutterstock