Skills vacuum

Posted on 15 Dec 2010 by The Manufacturer

Research released yesterday shows that basic literacy and numeracy skills are failing to improve in the UK despite government support. Jane Gray investigates what this might mean for industry prospects.

The impact of skills gaps on the UKs ability to build a competitive advanced manufacturing industry is widely recognised and vocally championed by stalwart activists like David Fox of Power Panels, Andrew Churchill of JJ Churchill and Linda Rawson of Gripple to name just a few of TMs regular contributors on skills issues. An underlying theme behind all skills discussion however is the necessity for a thorough baseline to be established in core subjects so that young people leaving school can build technical understanding and professional skills on a solid foundation of literacy and numeracy.

Skills advocates will then have been disturbed to note that research released by Durham University yesterday (December 14) shows the UK is failing to improve these core capabilities despite longstanding government initiatives, such as Sure Start, being designed to support literacy and numeracy standards.

Indeed the Durham report analysing the skills of over 117,000 children over an eight year period reveals that over pupils’ early word and picture recognition abilities have actually declined slightly in the last decade. Furthermore the report states that it is likely children without a confident grasp of basic literacy and numeracy will be held back in their education in later life.

With a shortfall of technically skilled operators and engineers having been identified if British industry wishes to achieve greater contribution to national GDP and rebalance the economy for the long term, this vacuum in skills areas which underpin manufacturing could be a stumbling block. Bill Williams, CEO of the Centre for Engineering and Manufacturing Excellence comments: “A sound grasp of mathematics is an underpinning ingredient of a good engineer. A second key skill is the ability to be able to communicate well in written form. Professionals must be able to express ideas and plans to other interested parties – be it colleagues, customers or your boss!

“Recent research done by ImechE argues that children choosing engineering as a career have largely decided by the time they are 14. Typically these kids will be performing well on numeracy and science related subjects – because they enjoy them. There are however many pupils who simply ‘don’t see the point’ of studying maths or sciences because it’s not easy at that age to see how it relates to getting an interesting job. That starves UK plc of engineering talent very early on.

“I am convinced, and we have some experience of this at CEME, that relating these skills to jobs and careers as early as you possibly can and does have an impact on student interest and grades! The Durham report is very unfortunate. The impact of a weak base in literacy and numeracy will make it even more difficult to attract young people into the engineering, manufacturing and technology sectors – because once young people form the view that they are not good at maths it’s a big, expensive and time consuming step for people like CEME and employers to convince them otherwise”

Ann Watson of EAL (EMTA Awards Ltd) shares many of Williams’ views: “Engineering and Manufacturing require a high level of understanding of maths and science; without a good grounding in these core subjects at an early age, learners will never be able to master the more complex problems or scenarios. This does not bode well for the future of the sector.

“The old saying, “give me the child until they are seven and I’ll give you the man”, has never resonated so deeply. We need to make sure that our children receive the best possible education right from the start, so that no doors are shut to them when they make their career choices.

“For years now, the UK education system has failed to equip a large proportion of our young people with these basic skills, and as a result Functional Skills – formerly Key Skills – have had to be incorporated as a mandatory part of the apprenticeship. These basic skills are not just about figures and letters; they are about giving young people a strong start in life so that they can fulfil their potential and help our industry to evolve and grow.”

Peter Willmott, founder of Willmott Solutions and a veteran of numerous manufacturing training and improvement initiatives however balances the approach to blaming a failing education system. While acknowledging the importance of core numeracy skills to future industry with the comment “Core maths IS mechanical engineering” he also goes on to emphasize that parents are the key motivating factor in any child’s education and career choices. Willmott steers us away from blaming shortfalls on the education system and says “We leave parents out of the child-school-advanced education-employer merry-go-round at our peril”

Whoever is to ‘blame’ what seems to be in little doubt is that fundamental literacy and numeracy standards need to be boosted and taught in an engaging way if the necessary numbers of technicians and engineers for an advance manufacturing nation are to be recruited and able to compete with major rival, such as China and Japan, where numeracy skills are traditionally strong. The role of parents and employers in this equation is one that has been ignored for too long.