Naked Engineer: Skills flap

Posted on 3 Feb 2014 by The Manufacturer

Too much fuss about skills gaps is a distracting industry leaders from the job of building a competitive industrial infrastructure in the UK says TM's no nonsense Naked Engineer.

Ask any SME manufacturer about the skills issues facing their business you are guaranteed to be drawn into a long, often circular, conversation about lack of funding, skills shortages and the fact the country will end up with more hairdressers than engineers in years to come.

Everyone in the manufacturing sector has an opinion on skills and everyone talks about skills gaps incessantly.

What confuses me is that, despite all the passionate rhetoric and the government crowing about the increase in the number of young people signing up to apprenticeships, our industry continues to suffer.

The number of people starting engineering and manufacturing technology-related apprenticeships in 2012/13 dropped to 66,400 from 69,700 in 2012/13. If you add that there only 46,000 engineering graduates each year for the predicted 87,000 jobs requiring engineering skills each year that will be created up to 2020, things don’t look like improving.

And because they don’t improve people keep talking and talking and talking.

So, right here, in this column, I am going to draw a line in the sand and not enter the debate any further because it’s simply drowning out other important issues for our sector that deserve serious discussion and where action can be taken more tangibly and effectively.

The most important issue, that affects all of the others, including skills, is how UK manufacturing can gain a competitive edge that will allow it to succeed on the global stage.

Devoting a large part of our time to the skills debate is putting the cart before the horse, because if we don’t create a more competitive infrastructure then we’ll only be training people for a dying industry.

In my mind, infrastructure is not the facilities and equipment we invest in. It’s about creating a knowledge-based industry network.

You can invest in kit and technology that catches the eye, such as nanotechnology and 3D printers, but these will not set you apart from the competition on their own merit; it will be the knowledge that is applied in using this kit to getting a better offering to your customers than your competitors can.

A knowledge-based system will enable a manufacturer to look beyond just production and see how it can expand and evolve into other areas of the manufacturing value chain that can help increase market position and sales.

And, to humour the skills debate fanatics, creating a knowledge-based industry will have a dramatic effect on the type of people we need.

Rather than recruiting for skills, we should be recruiting for attitude and aptitude. Skills can come later. Skilled people don’t evolve a business. They may be more efficient, but to compete on a global stage, we need to be more than just efficient.

Those with ambition, creativity and the ability to think laterally will be required to form the core of the UK’s next generation manufacturing industry.

So, the next time someone tries to draw you into the skills debate, ask them first if they’ve considered how their industry might look in 20 years if we don’t change. It might just start a discussion that’s actually worth having.