Only a longer-term view will solve our skills gap

Posted on 12 Aug 2019 by The Manufacturer

From pre-school to graduation takes 20 years, giving the UK just 10 years to stimulate the appropriate supply of trained engineers into industry by 2050.

A new piece of research puts forward a radical new framework for skills and lifelong learning. Barclays’ Mike Rigby reports.  

To drive innovation, productivity and economic growth, the UK needs to face the skills challenges of the future head-on.

The sooner we tackle the challenges ahead the better equipped we will be to grow the UK’s prosperity in the global knowledge economy.

CROP - Technician at work Production Line - Image courtesy of Depositphotos.

What these challenges are is well documented: attracting, recruiting, retaining and continuously developing talented people, against a pace of technological change that is nothing short of ferocious.

That is why Barclays was delighted to support the Talent 2050: Skills and Education for the Future of Engineering study, in partnership with London South Bank University, the National Centre for Universities and Businesses, NATS, and Pearson.

Through nine national workshops and a rapid evidence assessment, the study explored the future engineering needs in the UK for a globally-competitive skills and diversity mix.

The workshops explored barriers to entry into engineering roles and identified that a broader skillset ready for disruptive change will be required, something only possible through attracting a talent at different career stages and from different sectors – something the study termed ‘intersectoral mobility’.

Crucially, we engaged with a group of final year secondary school students to hear directly from those who will be actively productive in 2050.


Talent 2050: Skills and Education for the Future


Recruitment barriers and bottlenecks

1. Engineering needs to reach beyond existing STEM employees and change the perception of recruitment from the ‘leaky pipeline’ to a ‘reservoir of talent’, ready to learn.

2. Consider a more inclusive approach where recruitment or enrolment (including professional registration) is based on the potential to gain the right skills rather than previous attainment.

Changes to education

3. Digital skills, including AI, and environmental protection, provide the foundation for future change and need to be fully integrated in an industrial strategy that embraces interdisciplinary working. They also need to be at the heart of future education more widely.

4. The education system needs to embrace technology for learning, including smart phones, to prepare the next generation to access, filter and apply knowledge that is available online.

Supporting intersectoral mobility

5. Ensure upskilling and reskilling are fully supported for those in work, whether within the sector or bringing complementary skills through intersectoral mobility. This should be regionally tailored and applicable to SMEs, and those in the gig economy alongside major corporations.

6. The education and skills system needs more collaboration between the public sector (national and regional), educators and employers to share resources, set priorities together and support employees, the self-employed and those without employment.

Roundtable discussion

To mark the launch of the report, an exclusive round table was held at Barclays’ headquarters in Canary Wharf, attended by almost two-dozen associated stakeholders.

In my mind, this sort of engagement is absolutely paramount. The workshops and research that went in creating this piece of thought leadership represent a positive step forward, but how the report lives and breathes in the weeks and months ahead is far more important.

Following an overview of the study by the report’s author and former CEO of Engineering UK, Paul Jackson, the group discussed whether or not the recommendations were in fact achievable, or indeed went far enough in addressing the issues.

CROPPED - High school students in class - image courtesy of Depositphotos.

While everyone agreed that a change to our education system was needed, there was an acceptance from attendees that this may be seen as just one more in a long, long line.

There have been almost 28 skills reforms in 30 years, according to the CBI, leading businesses to become alienated, learning providers to become disjointed, and – most negatively – they have consistently failed to deliver the skills and talent the country requires.

The realisation led the group to discuss whether a change in national focus was required, a shift from ‘what skills do we need?’, to ‘how do we continually teach/train/develop people of all ages and backgrounds?’.“A different approach should – hopefully – produce different results”, was how one attendee phrased it.

For example in relation to the specific example of training a young student via a work placement, LifeSkills, created with Barclays, has highlighted seven core traits that everyone needs to develop on any kind of placement:

1. More than admin – Teamaking and administration are both important, and we’ve all done them, but they’re not enough to fill a meaningful work placement. The student needs to be involved with the day-to-day tasks performed in your business.

2. Variety – A placement that allows the student to meet people across the business or see a range of tasks performed will be a lot more interesting than one that doesn’t.

3. Teamwork – Whatever you can do to make the student feel part of the team will be time well spent.

4. What it’s like to be the boss – Even the most democratic business structures have bosses. Help the student understand how to behave around them by allowing them to sit in with someone senior for a period of time.

5. Customers – As learning exercises go, there’s nothing quite like meeting customers and seeing first-hand what they expect when they hand over their cash.

6. The bigger picture – Help the student understand that your business is just one element of a network that includes suppliers, the local community and the national economy.

7. Careers advice – Once you’ve had a chance to size up the student and their skills, help them achieve their ambitions by sharing your experience and advice.

While this is only one training scenario (a student’s work placement), the same logic can be applied to training anyone of a different age or experience level to develop their broader skillset.

The current model in engineering assumes a pipeline of individuals building a large resource of specific knowledge (through university or an apprenticeship), which is then augmented by people skills, management, communication and business, to provide a broader ‘career skillset’.

The resulting framework is T-shaped, where the technical knowledge has to exist before other elements – the horizontal part – can be added. This had to the current ‘leaky pipeline’ of talent, noted Jackson, with no potential to top up later.

To create more of a ‘reservoir of talent’, a broader perspective is needed right from early years to retirement with more focus on retraining staff to encourage intersectoral mobility, transferring skills within engineering and meeting the challenge of recruiting talent from outside.

A broader perspective on skills for engineering in the future - Framework, Talent 2050 report

The group was largely positive towards the report’s suggested framework, particularly the emphasis on so-called ‘soft’ skills like creative thinking and communication, as well as the foundation layers of digital and sustainability.

However, several attendees voiced concerns around its practical application, chief of which were frustrations regarding the lack of communication between Government departments.

One delegate commented that the education landscape is fragmented and the stakeholders need to ensure they are talking to each other..

Another delegate said that we need to be much more forward-facing to ensure we are “grabbing the opportunities of tomorrow”.

CROPPED - Pupils In Science Class - image courtesy of Depositphotos.

Similar frustrations were expressed over the side-lining of design and technology (D&T) in schools, with too many STEM activities focused solely on Science and Mathematics, ignoring the Technology and Engineering elements – though the lack of qualified D&T teachers and the high-cost of equipment were both raised.

The discussion concluded by exploring intersectoral mobility and its growing importance. The decisions made by 16-year old or younger are dictating people’s careers for the next 50 years, that has to change, the group agreed.

The idea of ‘a job for life’ is rapidly becoming defunct, a trend being compounded with the need for our aging workforce to become economically viable for longer. Supporting intersectoral mobility through retraining and upskilling opens recruitment potential to a more diverse workforce and will enhance diversity faster than waiting for changes in education to feed through.

On who should provide this retraining, in what fields, and who should pay, the group agreed that the responsibility should be shared between the state, employers and individuals, and will be an essential part of the UK remaining globally competitive.

What happens next?

I strongly urge you to read about the Talent 2050 report, but this piece of thought leadership doesn’t exist in isolation, it supports the conversation and moves it forward.

While most would agree that we are pushing for the best of tomorrow while struggling with the best of today (or more realistically yesterday), the report’s recommendations show a willingness to do something different, but we need to be enabled to make these changes effectively and sustainably.

When it comes to education, there will always be a variety of competing viewpoints and tensions. Some stakeholders, for example, are recommending a generic, standardised strategy, while others are suggesting a more nuanced approach is required to accommodate different needs.

I believe that the more the curriculum is influenced and informed by the skills that businesses require– regardless of the vehicle by which that takes place – the more enriched it becomes with greater diversity and modality.

All images courtesy of Depositphotos.