How many people does it take to plug the skills gap?

Christopher Greenough, director of Salop Design & Engineering, explains why three could be the ‘magic number’ when it comes to tackling the skills gap.

With the newfound resurgence in apprenticeships and the introduction of the Government’s levy, there appears to be real momentum building for helping manufacturers to address the skills shortage.

Christopher Greenough, director, Salop Design & Engineering.
Christopher Greenough, director, Salop Design & Engineering.

However, the future isn’t all rosy and there is a problem lurking on the horizon, which, if we do not address and tackle decisively, has the potential to hold back the UK economy as it jockeys for its place as an international force.

It’s not really a new issue either. We have long suffered from a lack of serious investment in training for our young people, not helped admittedly by serious economic pressures that made management teams batten down the hatches and spend all their money on simply surviving.

Even when times were good, there was an imbalance between knowing you should be training your people, and investing in the next generation of engineers and making sure the programmes you put in place delivered these objectives.

And don’t get me started on the way apprenticeships have fallen behind Further and Higher Education in the pecking order of options for young people.

The blame lies far and wide and isn’t down to one group, not even the Government who tend to be the proverbial whipping boys. All of us starting to take responsibility is exactly how we can begin to bridge the skills gap.

So in my view, ‘three is no longer a crowd’. Let me explain…

First of all, we need industry to continue to innovate; grow; create jobs, and continue this desire to invest in generating staff, now and in the future.

Alex Owen, apprentice, Salop Design & Engineering.
Alex Owen, apprentice, Salop Design & Engineering.

This will create the demand and, hopefully, position industry as a viable career.

Next, we need our schools and colleges to talk about manufacturing as a fantastic opportunity and spend time getting to know what 21st century engineering actually looks like; not to mention the simple fact you can use an apprenticeship as a route to University!

Teachers are vital for sowing the early seeds into pupils looking to set out on their career path…it goes without saying they also need to give them solid English, Maths and Science skills.

Finally, the missing link…Training Providers. Not often discussed, but absolutely critical in the winning formula we need to create.

There’s plenty out there, all professing to offer ‘bespoke’, ‘specialist’ courses that ‘meet your exact requirements’. Unfortunately, and I’m sure we’re not on our own here, our experience has been somewhat different.

Many tend to invest in expensive equipment and plush training facilities, with view to creating the impression that they know what they’re doing.

However, few actually employ the right trainers, who have the manufacturing experience and, importantly, the ability to pass their knowledge and skills on to young people.

(L to R) Alex, Malam, Connor Macrae and Alex Owen (all apprentices at Salop Design & Engineering).
(L to R) Alex, Malam, Connor Macrae and Alex Owen (all apprentices at Salop Design & Engineering).

As manufacturers, we also need to push training providers to be fully accountable to their clients and this visible accountability will ensure the ‘Apprenticeship Levy’ isn’t just another buzz initiative that lines the pockets of the wrong people, while failing the companies it’s been designed to help.

We’ve been one of the fortunate manufacturers that have managed to find a training provider that is right for our business.

In-Comm Training in Aldridge has been working with us for many years and has become more of a strategic partner, so much so that we actually embarked on a new venture with the firm last year.

This involved the creation of ITAS (In-Comm Training Academy Shrewsbury), a new dedicated facility that can cater for up to 60 apprentices every year.

It partly addresses a major lack of provision in Shropshire and, while it’s housed on our site in Brixton Way and represents a sizeable investment from us, is open to all employers keen on giving their young people (and indeed existing workers) the best possible development opportunities.

Connor Macrae, apprentice, Salop Design & Engineering.
Connor Macrae, apprentice, Salop Design & Engineering.

We’re practicing what we preach and have already entertained and visited a number of local schools and colleges to showcase what the academy has to offer and how pupils can get involved.

Banging the drum for apprenticeships

While we’re putting the successful formula into place, the whole of industry still has a role to play in promoting the benefits of becoming an apprentice.

It’s still the best way for enthusiastic youngsters to get into the sector, as they receive the chance to start their career by getting to know the company they are working for while getting paid at the same time…learning and earning, you could say.

There are also numerous stories of how individuals have gone from being apprentices to senior management and, in some cases, even running companies.

They make great ambassadors and role models that will definitely enthuse the next generation.

So in summary, the vision is clear…manufacturers working closely with training providers, and both of them building links with schools that are keen to engage.

‘Three’ does indeed appear to be the magic number if we are going to make the industry’s skills gap disappear.