The skills crisis: how collaboration could hold the key to a solution

Posted on 2 Mar 2020 by Daniel Kirmatzis

The inspiring story of how one local community collaborating around a single problem and building a set of resolutions could help address manufacturing’s deepening skills crisis.

According to the ONS, the number of NEETs (young people between the ages of 16 and 24 not in education, employment or training) between April and June 2019 was 792,000, an increase of 14,000 compared with 2018. In Leeds, a group of individuals and companies have recognised that radical action is necessary to stem the waste of talent and opportunity these figures represent.

There are two main issues contributing to the manufacturing skills crisis. The first is an older generation of workers heading for retirement, with considerably fewer skilled middle-aged workers behind them, thanks to the slump in manufacturing in the 1980s and 90s. And the second is the absence of young people with the right skills, or even awareness of the opportunities, to replace them.

In 2012, Mark Goldstone, Head of Policy at the West & North Yorkshire Chamber of Commerce, brought a small steering group together to address the access-to-skills issue in Leeds. The existing education system was under pressure, and neither schools nor the local business community were talking to each other about ways to resolve it.

However, despite the steering group’s best intentions, nothing much was done. It was the involvement of the Baker Dearing Trust in 2013 that changed that.

Established in 2009 by Lords Baker and Dearing, the Trust promotes and supports the establishment of University Technical Colleges (UTCs). Lord Baker visited Leeds and spoke to an audience of manufacturers about the importance of UTCs, and with the help of the Trust, and an expanded steering group that now included Agfa Graphics Ltd, Eastman Kodak, Siemens, Unilever and the University of Leeds, they secured £11m in funding to get a University Technical College established in the city.

Leeds UTC. Image: Race Cottam Architects
Leeds UTC. Image: Race Cottam Architects

They started the UTC in a building they had purchased in the city centre, which was an important prerequisite for the group for a variety of reasons, including easy transport access for the local community.


Opened in 2016, today UTC Leeds is thriving. Situated adjacent to the Braime Pressings Factory, it has a capacity for 600 students, offering entry at years 10 and 12.

Being situated so close to the Braime factory also provides ample opportunity for students to take up work placements and work on specific projects including a recent design of a new A-Frame for the company.

It’s a great educational success story with pupils in demand from local businesses. In 2019, it had zero NEETs for Year 13 leavers, meaning that every student leaving has either started an apprenticeship (26%); started a degree apprenticeship (4%); entered a Russell Group University (17%); started further education (46%); or found employment (7%).

With a talks programme including input from NASA, students can gain access and insights into engineering and manufacturing at the cutting-edge of tomorrow’s world.

Mark Goldstone says that he is most proud of the way employers have engaged with students and given them real life practical applications of how maths and science are used in the real world. This contextualising of the subject material really brings it to life and helps young people to grasp what can often be quite complex and dry theoretical knowledge.

Machinery on which students gain real-life manufacturing experience. Image: Mark Goldstone.

The UTC provides skills manufacturers need including communication, problem-solving, resilience and team-working – skills, as Mark told me, no GCSE course caters for.

Graham Cooper, director of Agfa Graphics Ltd, is one of the original members of the steering group. He believes the key to success is flexibility; both schools and manufacturers need to be flexible in their approach for both to benefit.

Graham is also the originator of the Leeds Manufacturing Festival. After seeing an advert on the internet for the US’s Manufacturing Day, Graham realised there was potential to replicate such an idea in the UK. During a meeting of the Leeds Manufacturing Alliance in February 2017, Graham proposed they start a manufacturing festival in Leeds.

Later that year they decided to organise an event for 2018. The event took place again in October 2019 when manufacturers across Leeds opened their doors to young people, schools and the local community showcasing employment opportunities in Leeds with increased involvement from local businesses.

The collaborative approach taken by manufacturers in Leeds has provided real benefits to the local community as well as the country, for it benefits everyone to have young people finding a path to employment and reversing the national figure of more than 750,000 young people being categorised as NEETs.

The UTC’s success is an ideal model for the government to study and help replicate at the regional level. The power of one local community collaborating around one single problem and building a set of resolutions, including building the UTC and establishing a festival of manufacturing, is inspiring.

It also proves that manufacturers just get on and get things done – government please take note!

Daniel Kirmatis is the manager of The Manufacturer Community, where manufacturers gather to share opportunities, challenges, problems – and solutions.

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