Industrialists demand a simplified skills landscape at Tory fringe

Posted on 19 Oct 2012

The Government must do more to support a consistent approach to skills in advanced manufacturing - that was the message from a Semta fringe meeting at the Conservative Party conference chaired by Jacqui Henderson CBE.

Leading industrialists urged politicians to stop reflecting too much on the past and instead look to the long term planning being done in emerging markets for skills such as Asia.

Their comments came after Lord Marland, Parliamentary Secretary of State for Business Innovation and Skills had told delegates how the excellence of UK manufacturing was recognised around the world. He had visited 25 countries all of which put the UK in the top three to do business with.

He said our industrial heritage, the transparent nature of law, “incorruptible” government, low corporation tax, world-class products and a strong education and skills base made the UK very attractive.

But he warned, while the Government could incentivise companies to drive skills, it could not be responsible for training, saying firms needed to take a “cradle to grave” approach. “I would urge more businesses to take the risk of training people from an early stage,” Lord Marland told delegates. “We are here to help, to set the framework. It is taking time, but we are getting there.”

Skills communities
Indro Mukerjee, CEO and director of Plastics Logic, outlined how electronics technology was at the heart of most business, the industry itself employing 856,000 people – 2.9% of the working population. He described how the landscape had changed, with the electronics industry now populated by more SMEs than big brand companies, creating a challenging skills environment.
He said The UK Electronics Skills Foundation – formed through a public/private partnership – would create a pipeline of bright students from academia into British industry.

Jacqui Henderson CBE, managing director of Creative Leadership and Skills, chaired the debate

Mr Mukerjee told delegates it was vital to connect employers with talented people in schools and universities if there was to be a sustainable supply of industry-prepared graduates and apprentices.

Confidence needed
Managing director of Siemens UK industry sector, Juergen Maier said he was encouraged by the trend of more investment in advanced manufacturing but warned there was no room for complacency. “We have too many skilled engineers retiring in the next 15 years and not enough young people to take the jobs,” he said. “This year Siemens has taken on 160 apprentices and 100 graduates and this will rise year on year. We support the previous government’s moves on apprentices, continued by this government, which is making up for lost ground.”

However, he warned that SMEs in the supply chain were not finding it as easy as the bigger firms so they needed more support. He said the complex skills landscape needed simplifying, while the bigger firms could do more to help smaller companies. “The government needs to take a more proactive rather than passive role,” said Mr Maier. “There needs to be firm commitment to things like offshore and nuclear for example. How can SMEs take a risk when they are uncertain how much the UK is going to invest in these areas? That sort of dithering makes it difficult to make long term investment decisions.”

Core skills and diversity
Nigel Whitehead, group managing director programmes and support BAE Systems, stressed the huge importance of the engineering and manufacturing to the UK, generating £1.5 trillion in turnover – 25% of the turnover of all UK businesses – employing 5.6 million people in more than 550,000 companies, making the UK the seventh largest manufacturing nation in the world.

He said there was an estimated requirement for 2.2 million new people over the next decade with 17% of manufacturers reporting skills gap now. While there had been a positive increase in the numbers taking GCSE biology, chemistry and physics, with student numbers tripling in 10 years, only 15% of the GCSE cohort achieved A to C in Maths and triple science in 2009/10.

In the same year only 4% achieved maths and physics at ‘A’ level, generally a prerequisite for an engineering degree and of those only 21% were female. Of the 460,000 apprenticeship starts last year, 49,000 were in engineering and manufacturing, but only 5% were female.

Concerted marketing
A recurring theme from the speakers and questions from the floor was a need to excite schoolchildren to the possibilities of manufacturing but then continue to engage them. Mr Whitehead said since 2005 more than 130,000 9-14 year olds had been to a BAE Roadshow and in applications for jobs today many candidates mentioned that experience as a reason for pursuing a career in manufacturing.

“All the ingredients are there but we need a marketing job surrounding the UK’s national ambition to make and sell things so young people can understand and see it is a career for them,” he said. “BAE invested £85m last year in skills, with around 1,000 apprentices and 500 graduates in training. If industry as a whole doesn’t get it right – and get it right now – we will miss a great opportunity.”

Semta’s UK operations director Lynn Tomkins said it was important to get the message to young people that a career with an SME can be just as rewarding as with a bigger firm. She said Semta’s ambition was to double the number of companies taking on apprentices this year. So far, 2,000 places had been identified while 200 companies had expressed a willingness to take on a graduate and the sector skills council is working with 30 universities to achieve that aim.

“There is a huge willingness among companies to attract and train their own talent but they need help, particularly in the supply chain,” she said. “Only 8% of the workforce is currently in the 16-24 age group so we have some issues.”

Responding to questions as to how this might be changed, Mr Mukerjee said: “While we should be justifiably proud of our heritage we must look to the future and benchmark ourselves against some of the Asian countries and companies who have excelled in technology.”

Mr Mukerjee also raised the issue of respect for the engineering profession in the UK. He said those who have excelled in engineering need to make it clear that it is a career to be wanted rather than fallen into. Mr Whitehead said of the 400 leaders in military aircraft around 270 had started as apprentices, which showed their value. He said promotion of apprentices outstripped that of graduates yet too often apprenticeships were seen as the poor relation.

The panel agreed that this needed to change. “We have to get into a position where everyone, whatever their background, sees an apprenticeship is for their children rather than someone else’s,” concluded Mr Whitehead. “It is that perception we need to tackle.”