The manufacturing skills shortage in the UK is an ongoing concern. With more and more schools incentivised to promote higher education over vocational learning, there is a risk that not enough people will be trained in highly skilled manufacturing roles.
Not only does this create skills shortages that affect a range of industries, but it also generates slower economic growth overall. The UK has one of the highest university attendance rates in the world. However, it also has significant skills gaps in technical areas such as manufacturing.
What do the numbers say?
Government statistics show that the number of apprenticeship starts was down 0.3% from 2021-2022, versus 2019-2020. While on the surface this doesn’t seem like a significant amount, looking at the detail behind this, apprenticeship starts within Engineering and Manufacturing specifically dropped from 18,680 in 2019-2020, to 13,400 in 2021-2022 – a 28% decrease. The industry has seen a steady decline in apprenticeship starts over a five-year period, down from 28,890 in 2016-2017.
Given the government has estimated a need for 168,000 new workers to enter the sector annually up to 2024 to meet demand, these numbers are more than a little concerning.
New skills for a new era
Another primary reason for the gap is that UK manufacturing firms manage increasingly complex projects, requiring highly skilled professionals with wide ranging experience.
At Universal Wolf, we see the growing demand for skilled manufacturers first-hand. We have seen increased demand for more complex services such as New Product Introduction and Design for Manufacturing. We’ve been fortunate to be able to recruit and train many apprentices over the years.
Apprenticeships are a key part of our business growth and futureproofing, offering young people a practical route into a career. Alongside practical and technical skills such as welding and fabrication, they also learn softer skills like teamwork, leadership, and critical thinking. The variety of the role means that every day brings new challenges and opportunities. We’re delighted to now be recruiting for our 2023 apprentice intake.
Solving the problem: equality and diversity in the workplace
Of course, one way to plug the significant shortfall in skilled workers is to address the lack of women within the Engineering and Manufacturing space.
A report by EngineeringUK indicated that in 2021, women represented 16.5% of the Engineering workforce, up from 10.5% in 2010. While this increase is encouraging, there is still a long way to go to reach a state of gender equality within Engineering and Manufacturing, which in turn will help to address the lack of talent entering the industry. To ensure future balance between men and women in the sector, an awareness of engineering and manufacturing, and the opportunities available therein, needs to be fostered at a primary and secondary school level. This is something we are passionate about as a business – in fact, our Welding and Fabrication Lead Melanie Stewart recently addressed a room of the most influential women in the North East at the NEECC Inspiring Females conference, to raise this very issue.
Not only will encouraging more women into Engineering help to address the skills gap – it will also create stronger businesses with better and more rounded solutions to problems.
It speaks volumes that the Royal Academy of Engineering has implemented a Diversity and Inclusion Action Plan 2020-2025. The goal of this plan is to boost the numbers and diversity of those entering engineering careers, and foster diversity and inclusion in workplace culture.
Solving the problem: training and development
We can help to solve the skill shortage as a growing business – but we need the government and the education system to play its part. The good news is that progress is being made – for example, British manufacturing body Make UK offers excellent technical training courses. However, we will need a collective effort from industry and government to close the deficit. If we can get a strong pipeline of new recruits into the manufacturing industry, there is huge potential for the sector to grow.
Britain has always been a manufacturing powerhouse, but skills shortages are becoming a real challenge. The UK has, up until now, thrived despite its skills shortages; but recent trends could see this change if we don’t act and address the skills gap today. At Universal Wolf, we are ready to help solve the problem, but we need collective action to ensure that UK manufacturing – and the next generation – can reach their full potential.
About the author
Melanie Stewart is the Welding & Fabrication Lead at Universal Wolf
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