Stop crossing wires in skills gap debate

Posted on 13 Jan 2011 by The Manufacturer

Manufacturing commentators must try harder to decipher the UK’s real skills needs, and not compare apples with pears.

Everyone is acknowledging the UK’s growing skills gap. We are not educating the population with the appropriate skills needed for growth areas like low carbon applications (that’s both ‘dark green’ and ‘light green’ skills), advanced manufacturing, biosciences and digital technologies – most of which should have strong manufacturing opportunities.

But it has baffled me that much of the media coverage confuses two quite different things, directly comparing the dearth of engineering and STEM subject graduates and the need for manufacturing skilled labour. Why so different? It’s like comparing apples with pears.

Russell Lynch writes in the London Evening Standard this week that the UK is a long way behind the skills curve in preparing for the new economy. Click here or go, for the article.

The article is right to recognise manufacturing’s surge at the vanguard of recovery, and in highlighting that engineering degree courses have an inadequate number of applicants, or course places, or both. And Mr Lynch can’t resist the temptation to compare the UK’s engineering educational base with that of China – although, allowing for China’s 1.3bn population, the UK is nearly on par with the no. of engineers we produce (25,000 students accepted on engineering courses in 2009) compared with China’s 600,000 graduates – about 1/24th in each case.

The mistake is to compare our modest graduate engineering base with the 587,000 people needed to be recruited in manufacturing and engineering by 2017 just to meet replacement demand.

For a sector that employs 2.6 million people (source: EEF), this number is surely the total number of recruits in manufacturing and engineering in all sectors at all levels, including unskilled workers. Therefore the 25,000 engineering graduates is a pointless comparison, unless we know how many of the forecast 587,000 need to have a degree in engineering.

Manufacturing jobs need a diverse range of skills covering production operations and lean manufacturing knowledge, IT skills, supply chain management, product design and product lifecycle management, mechanical and maintenance operations, accounting and more. Some will find a STEM subject degree an advantage or a prerequisite, but only a small proportion of these demand a degree in engineering. Some firms really want fairly bright school leavers with basic maths and the right attitude.

It seems that so often politicians, journalists and commentators with a public voice directly equate engineering graduate numbers with the holistic, all-level recruitment needs of modern manufacturing companies.

So how many graduates will make up this 587,000 skills gap by 2017? Cogent, the sector skills council for the process, nuclear and oil industries, says that to 2017 there is a need for 120,000 new personnel in science and engineering related occupations. This breaks down as about 39,000 managers and 20,000 professionals, with 24,000 associated professionals, and skilled trades and operatives making up the balance.

“For professionals the main entry is either graduate recruitment or transfer, while the associated professionals and skilled trade occupations are those where apprenticeship and training are most relevant,” says Cogent’s director of external affairs Mervin Dadd.

If Cogent’s 120,000 new personnel are only for its share of manufacturing, and about half of these (39,000 + 20,000) need a degree, then a rough calc suggests the UK needs about 290,000 – or half of the 587,000 – recruits educated to degree level to fill the gap by 2017.

That is a lot more than 25,000 engineering students accepted in the UK in 2009. But three points: i) some of Cogent’s management jobs will not require a degree in any subject, ii) many of the 290,000 will not need an engineering degree specifically, because they will be employed in support jobs and iii) figures from admissions service UCAS show that the number of accepted applicants at UK universities are growing – from 2008 to 2009, the number of engineering applicants increased by 2,000. Mr Lynch says this figure is unmoved since 1996, while the table I’m looking at shows a year-on-year rise in applicants since 2006.

The UK has a long way to go to educate and train the required number of people in the new age of manufacturing and engineering industries. But it is incorrect and misleading for commentators to, frequently, conflate the projected number of qualified engineers with projected manufacturing jobs.

Will Stirling

Post script: As another example of crossed wires, the deficit of 587,000 recruits by 2017 meant nothing to the author of the report from where it was sourced, Rob Wilson at Warwick University’s Institute of Employment and Research. That figure cannot be found within the Institute’s December 2008 Working Futures report, and its 382-page evidence paper, from where it was attributed, although the number does appear on Google linked to the manufacturing jobs gap.