Filling the skills black hole

Posted on 7 May 2008 by The Manufacturer

The recently announced cut in highly skilled jobs at BAE Systems underlines the sheer paradox of Britain’s perennial skills crisis. Colin Chinery reports

In January BAE Systems’ first major advertising campaign for five years opened with the headline: “We train more skilled engineers in the UK than any other company.” Twelve weeks later skilled engineers became the majority casualties in a 600 job cut at BAE’s sites at Woodford near Manchester and Brough near Hull.
The losses are attributed to the completion of current orders and failure to win new contracts.
Aerospace is a volatile and highly competitive market and cuts of a kind had been anticipated.
Yet the presence only days earlier of Brough-built Hawks at the RAF’s 90th birthday celebrations seemed to compound the low cloud of irony.
Industry insiders are confident the displaced skilled will find opportunities elsewhere within what is a highly successful company with major programmes on the horizon. And a check on BAE’s online job board shows multiple skilled vacancies at two other Lancashire sites.
Yet against the backdrop of the UK’s seemingly intractable skills issue, the BAE Systems job story throws up an unmistakable paradox.
According to the Association for Consultancy and Engineering there are currently 20,000 unfilled vacancies in the consultancy and engineering sector alone. “Immediate action is needed if we are to solve the engineering skills crisis,” says ACE chief executive, Nelson Ogunshakin. At the same time the demand for IT professionals is reported as almost seven per cent greater than the available supply.
Over half of manufacturers in London and the south east are being forced to look outside Britain to find the skilled people needed to grow their businesses. And the survey by EEF South reveals a widening of the technical skills gap, pushing companies to recruit from as far afield as India. And while the skills shortage is forcing UK manufacturers to recruit abroad, skilled and qualified Britons are moving in an opposite direction.
According to new figures from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, Britain is going through the biggest brain drain of any country and its biggest exodus for more than 50 years.
One in 10 of our most highly skilled graduates has left – no other country is losing so many qualified people. There are currently over 3.2 million British-born people living abroad of whom 1.1 million are highly skilled university graduates, says the report.
So we have the paradox of a numerically skilldeficient nation, its engineering and allied career opportunities rejected by the typical school leaver – meanwhile we are seeking skilled, well-educated recruits from abroad while large numbers of qualified and experienced nationals are waving Britain goodbye.
Dr Chris Emslie, managing director of Fibrecore, Southampton, which manufactures and supplies specialist optical fibre, says the relative value placed on technical education is a perennial problem in the UK. “Recruiting the right people is definitely getting harder. Currently we have a senior process engineer post open – we couldn’t find anyone in the UK and had to cast out to our nearest competitor in Denmark. It’s likely we will employ a Bangladeshi national via The Toyota Research Institute in Japan!”
Insufficient as they are, is Britain making the most of its skill resources? Move up to the macro level, and UK manufacturing must develop a skills and strategic planning competence, says Andy Leather of the Society of British Aerospace Companies.
Leather is responsible for leading the implementation of the Government-backed AeIGT portfolio, which includes the research and technology and people and skills agendas. “One of the challenges we are looking at and currently trialling is that while we know there is a skills shortage, when you ask someone to quantify what that is, it’s very difficult to get hard fast data.”
A new AeIGT programme aims to make skills planning as important as its business counterpart. “There can be an assumption that by and large the people are there to deliver that business plan. We are suggesting that what needs to happen as part of that overall process is that there is a skills capacity or strategic workforce planning so we can start the training and planning now to ensure these people exist.
“There are elements of good practice, but traditionally there has been a lack of such planning, with the top of the food chain raping and pillaging lower down the supply chain to get the people, so you finish up with that shortage, possibly artificially upping the price and making it difficult for smaller companies. We are embarking on a massive amount of work to try and get that embedded in the industry. I would like the elements of good practice that exist to become compelling across the industry. And they are not at the moment.”
National Skills Academy for Manufacturing managing director Bob Gibbon agrees. “Recent studies show that overall, UK firms are not terrifically well managed in terms of talent management, with the result that people move on and move out.
Eighty five per cent of all UK training investment and resource goes into the delivery phase; look at the research statistics and this generally gives only 25 per cent of the benefit. It’s not so much how frequently we train or how much we invest, but how do we train better?”
With more than 20,000 employees in Britain, the job losses at BAE Systems do not amount to a cull, but what they do represent says Bernie Hamilton, national officer, aerospace and shipbuilding for Unite the Union, is the “fierce onward advancement in technology that the sector experiences.
How employers must ensure that workers are fully trained in advanced technologies and upskilling should be a strategic requirement of any training regime.”
EEF chairman Martin Temple fears, however, that the Government’s encouraging words in many areas of education and skills are taking too long to translate into action.
“The need for an increase in the number of people with high level skills is acute in sectors such as engineering and manufacturing, which are suffering from a shortage of people with science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects. Simply sending more people through higher education is not enough if they do not have the skills that employers need.”
As many as 70 per cent of redundant employees drop into lower skilled jobs according to studies, and as EEF’s education and skills policy adviser Andrew Smith points out, labour mobility will always be a problem. “If you are a high earning engineer it’s very easy to move around, but if you are a semi-skilled production worker it’s probably more difficult.”
Even so, in three years the Derby-based Midlands Redeployment Group (MEIRG) has helped more than half of the region’s engineers facing structural job changes remain within the sector – the national average is 30 per cent. “The retention of skills within manufacturing is vital to the economic growth of the UK,” says Unite’s director of research, Roger Jeary. “We have raised the problem of some employers not participating in staff training and development, and consistently advocated a training levy.”
Andy Leather is unimpressed. “The UK is becoming more and more unattractive for inward investment, and burdening it further with a training levy would be suicide.”
But manufacturing continues to struggle with an attraction problem more entrenched – its lack of career appeal to the young. Michelle Connors of Inside Manufacturing Enterprise is seeing success linking manufacturers with schools in the west Midlands, exposing the reality of modern manufacturing to an audience that is suitably surprised and impressed.
“Many young people with no experience of manufacturing think it’s about ‘a bloke with a spanner and dirty clothes’. The scale of the problem is absolutely huge. It affects not only the children who are in schools but also teachers and parents.”
As well as her work with the Coventry University Enterprises/MAS West Midlands project, Connors is also a STEM science and engineering ambassador, altogether an improbable vocation given her background.
“My father was a maintenance engineer at AP Leamington, and was made redundant when I was a child. He came home filthy every night, and we used to go to the factory and there was filth everywhere. A few months ago I went back and the place is immaculate. I had to overcome my preconceptions before I could encourage others to. I’m 25 and a lot of my friends are going into teaching jobs, and they all have the same opinion about manufacturing as I once had.”
Meantime manufacturers like Dr Chris Emslie grapple with the skill issues that are the consequences of these preconceptions. “We are just not finding the skills set we need on the engineering side in the UK. Even on the technician side it is problematic. I am not sure the Government has the right idea about training so many to degree level.
“Young people are forced into higher education where they seem to be encouraged either to become managers or to ‘do something with computers’.
There is a pressure to achieve expert status in technical skills but individuals and society need to accept that expert skills can take a long time to develop. I do not believe that the current system is getting the results that we need.” The message to government, says EEF South chief executive David Seall, “is to raise the status of craft skills, and promote the study of science and engineering more heavily, particularly to degree level.
“UK manufacturing in the 21st century is highly successful in competing through design, innovation, quality and customer service. But these achievements will be increasingly undermined if, as a nation, we cannot provide a ready supply of technically trained people.”
Next month you can find out how to interact effectively with the public in your area and change their perception of manufacturing.