Plugging the skills gap: Toyota’s See Inside Manufacturing

Posted on 6 Jul 2012

The school trip I would have loved, a visit to Toyota.

It gets said a lot, but the fact remains that the UK needs more people in manufacturing. The sentiment will be repeated until there is an education system in place that produces people with good grades in STEM subjects and the image of industry improves to reflect the level of skills, technology and roles available in the sector.

Toyota swung open its doors to over 30 schoolchildren yesterday, as it does throughout the year, for the Government’s  schools engagement initiative See Inside Manufacturing. 

Students from local schools Rhosnesni High and Ysgol Clywedog became a lot sprightlier after being handed robots and taken on a tour around Toyota’s plant in Deeside, North Wales, which manufactures the ZR hybrid, ZR and V8 engines.

Gary Bawden, section manager at the plant, led the manufacturing sales pitch by describing the pride that comes with making something and, knowing his audience, the salary you get paid for doing so.

Michael Markham (14) and Kevin Lewis (13) both want to enter manufacturing.
Michael Markham (14) and Kevin Lewis (13) both want to enter manufacturing.

Information was provided on the roles of different staff and what they get paid for it. Unsurprising, the kids were unanimous in their underestimation of wages within the sector.

After looking at some of the wages Toyota’s employees were on, enthusiastic Rhosnesni High student Kevin Lewis, excitedly exclaimed “You get loads of money for it!”

Sitting alongside Kevin was Michael Markham, aged 14. The pair reeled off “plumbing, engineering, manufacturing and electricians” as good jobs, but added that they were different to most of their school friends who “would probably say doctors and nurses.”

This enthusiasm for the outdoors is at its peak when students are young and tends to decline with age. It is vital that the energy of young Kevin and Michaels across the country are tapped into and shown careers which will utilise skills they can get interested in from an early age.

When asked what he was most impressed with during the course of the visit, Michael Markham from Rhosnesni High said: “I wasn’t too sure what to expect. I thought I would see how Toyota makes the engines but I didn’t expect the site to be so big and have so many stages to make it. It’s a lot more complex than I thought.”

All of the schoolchildren were specifically chosen because of their interest in manufacturing, with Kevin and Michael both having chosen to study engineering at GCSE-level from September.

The three people not taking engineering from the group happened also to be female. Sioned Bryden,  Amy Carter and Robyn Naylor (all 14), took a great interest in the site as they were shown the furnace that makes over two and half tonnes of aluminium alloy every hour, heat reclamation technology that appealed to green ideals and the manufacture of the various components that are then assembled to make the engine.

Sioned Bryden, Robyn Naylor and Amy Carter (all 14), alongside the Toyota Avensis.
Sioned Bryden, Robyn Naylor and Amy Carter (all 14), alongside the Toyota Avensis.

Girls and boys alike challenged Gary Bawden on the science involved in the process, so why does such a gap exist?

Sioned Bryden, 14, applied much common sense to the debate by referencing the gender stereotypes engrained from an early age, saying how “you’re told that women are nurses and men are mechanics from a young age.”

Miss Bryden, alongside fellow Rhosnesni High pupils Amy and Robyn, agreed that there would be a better chance of them going into manufacturing if visits such as this had taken place earlier.

In order for this to happen, young people need to see inside manufacturing at an even younger age, before they pick their GCSEs.

A better careers service, joined up with industry and all other parties with a vested-interest, would supply this.

Sioned and Robyn, who want to enter midwifery and acting respectively, said that they had not picked engineering as they had (quite wisely) chosen subjects related to their ideal careers.

Both smart and engaged when walking around a Toyota factory that they were picked for based on their active participation on a similar trip to Airbus, these are two lost opportunities to plug the manufacturing skills gap.

Robyn Naylor, Amy Carter and Sioned Bryden alongside the 1.8L ZL engine made on the site.
Robyn Naylor, Amy Carter and Sioned Bryden alongside the 1.8L ZL engine made on the site.

Rating the visits to Toyota and Airbus above a trip to Chester Zoo, the girls said that the visit to Toyota had improved the likelihood that they would work in manufacturing but the chances were still low as they already have their sights set on other things.

Putting forward the sort of solutions that still seem to elude schools, government and industry, the pair both thought that more could be done to connect women within manufacturing with young females such as themselves.

Quite simply, there needs to be an image improvement.

Angela Taylor, learning coach and work experience coordinator at Rhosnesni High, commented: “Maybe this could have been done a bit earlier, maybe the year before they choose their options. We would have got more students interested in engineering if they’d had the opportunity to come and see what it is all about. A lot of them don’t understand the different facets of engineering.”

Yet, Toyota has been running events like this for years. So the blame for this missed opportunity lies somewhere between the schools, the teachers, careers advisory services and government and a host of other stakeholders.

Polly Booker, who set-up and teaches electronic products at Ysgol Clywedog, said that promoting STEM subjects was dependant on the support from the top, and that she had received great support from the headmaster at the school, Dr David Kirby.

Toyota's Deeside plant is zero waste to landfill. Any waste goes back into the manufacturing process.
Toyota's Deeside plant is zero waste to landfill. Any waste goes back into the manufacturing process.

Yet STEM support seems to be quite rare with just three out of 13 schools in the Wrexham area running engineering as a GCSE. Mrs Booker noted that the deviation across schools in regards to their support for manufacturing-related subjects is very dependent upon the person at the top.

Perhaps the reason behind the support at Ysgol Clywedog is that Dr Kirby formerly worked in industry. Polly Booker, who has a background in industry herself, comments: “There are not many teachers with an industrial background. There needs more people from industry working at the qualification bodies and within teaching itself.”

Having signed up to the Believe in D&T campaign, Mrs Booker is worried about the status of hands-on subjects within the curriculum. Despite devolution from Westminster which allows the Welsh a certain amount of power to make their own decisions on its education system, she states that the existence of D&T subjects within the national curriculum remains a worry as “whatever happens in England tends to eventually happen in Wales.”

When asked if their teachers have ever mentioned manufacturing, Michael Markham, who wants to work in manufacturing because its hand-on and more interesting than writing (his words), says, “No, not at all.”

Toyota to the rescue then with their new open doors policy that welcomes students of all ages and specialist days aimed at teaches and parents. After all, it’s not just the young people who need to see inside manufacturing, it’s also those that guide them and shape their ideals of what makes for a good career and what doesn’t.

One thing is certain, if the teacher’s can’t get children interested in STEM subjects, Gary Bawden from Toyota certainly will!