Time for metalwork to go back to school

Posted on 17 Jan 2023 by The Manufacturer

Opportunities for young people to touch metal have all but disappeared. Mandy Tyler, of Tyler Bros, is on a mission to put practical metalworking back into the curriculum. Jonny Williamson reports.

In many ways, Tyler Bros is your archetypal engineering SME, similar to businesses found in towns and cities across the UK. It is family-owned, has a long and rich heritage, and produces highly complex components in low to medium volumes.

It has a small but dedicated workforce and an unwavering commitment to providing a premium service. There is also a strong belief in the power of local partnerships and personal relationships, which are usually forged over tea and biscuits.

The challenges facing Tybro, as the company is known, are equally universal. Top of the list is an ageing workforce and difficulties filling job vacancies, especially technical roles like machine operators. Such roles are vital to Tybro whose precision-engineered parts serve demanding applications in rail, automotive, aerospace and natural resource exploration.

Anyone familiar with manufacturing will know the skills shortage is by no means new. However, a cocktail of issues has meant the sector faces the biggest shortage of skilled workers in four decades. In a post-pandemic, post-Brexit world, with the UK allegedly at full employment, what once was intractable has become almost impossible.

Tyler Bros’ Nottinghamshire factory houses a collection of machinery, including a range of milling machines, lathes and turning centres

Tyler Bros’ Nottinghamshire factory houses a collection of machinery, including a range of milling machines, lathes and turning centres.

For Mandy Tyler, Managing Director of Tybro and granddaughter of business founder Harry, a recent experience brought home the urgent need for change. Applying for a secondary school place for her eldest gave Mandy an insight into what is happening – and has happened – in secondary education.

“I wanted to see if a school was good enough for my daughter, of course, but I couldn’t help also seeing what engineering experiences they offered. Few schools have dedicated engineering departments anymore, but I toured their design and technology facilities and asked department heads what aspects of engineering they teach.”

Mandy discovered that opportunities for school children to “touch metal” were few and far between: “The current education system is farming a generation of young people with zero experience of physically making something. That’s alarming yet doesn’t receive anywhere near the attention it deserves.”

The death of shop class

Various reasons lie behind why practical engineering, especially metalworking, has largely disappeared from mainstream curriculums. The high cost of machines and materials is certainly a factor, particularly with schools across England facing a funding crisis.

Health and safety is another concern, something compounded by the acute shortage of qualified teachers in secondary and further education. Almost three-quarters of FE college principals rank engineering as the hardest subject to recruit for, according to EngineeringUK.

Indeed, between 2011 and 2020, the number of design and technology (D&T) teachers in schools fell from 14,800 (six percent of all teachers) to 7,300 (three percent). This has seen the number of students entering D&T at GCSE and A-level plummeting by more than 70% over the same period. [Figures from the Education Policy Institute]

Additionally, there are fewer financial incentives such as ‘golden hello’ bursaries on offer for D&T teachers compared to other subjects such as physics. This reinforces the sense that while STEM education has undeniably become more of a focus, the emphasis is primarily on science and maths rather than technology and engineering.

Another factor is the prevailing prejudice many still hold towards vocational pathways, careers in industry and manufacturing broadly. EngineeringUK’s latest Engineering Brand Monitor found that less than a third of teachers viewed engineering as a secure profession and a quarter felt that a vocational qualification is less impressive to potential employers than a degree.

Like many of her peers, Mandy has concerns over what this means for the industry readiness of young people: “There isn’t enough practical emphasis in today’s courses. The crucial focus on fabricating is missing. The feedback we’ve received is that apprentices have learned more in half a day with us than in two years at college.

“Others have told us they didn’t enjoy the apprenticeship experience because the course, again, wasn’t practical enough for them. In two years, they only had a handful of lessons where they were machining metal. Businesses like ours are having to absorb the time and cost of additional training to get new starters to where we need them to be.

“UK manufacturing is booming. Order books are strong and almost every business is looking to create more capacity and increase output. To ensure we keep up with the demands and growth of our business, we need to look at improving how we train young people for the future.

Tybro is currently in talks with West Nottinghamshire College and Nottingham Trent University to align the curriculum more closely to the needs of local businesses

Tybro is currently in talks with West Nottinghamshire College and Nottingham Trent University to align the curriculum more closely to the needs of local businesses.

Engineering excellence since 1914

Tyler Bros is an award-winning precision engineering firm specialising in machining, fabrication and assembly.

The fourth-generation, family-owned business was founded before the First World War and originally repaired bicycles. Today, Tybro, as it is also known, combines traditional values with cutting-edge machine tools.

Its Nottinghamshire factory in the market town of Sutton-in-Ashfield houses an impressive collection of machinery, including a range of milling machines, lathes and turning centres and a dedicated fabrication facility. All chosen specifically to meet customers’ exacting requirements and industry standards.

Tybro’s greatest strength, however, is its team of skilled engineers, whose wealth of technical knowledge and expertise enables the business to deliver a premium quality service and a complete engineering package.

“Engineering definitely runs in the Tyler family’s blood. Both my grandfather and father were quintessential British tinkerers, especially anything metal or with an engine,” said Mandy.

“My father, who will be 90 next year, remains deeply passionate about this business and seeing it continue to grow. He’s such an inspiration to us all and without his efforts and his father before him, none of us would be here today.”

Will T levels make the grade?

Mandy is one of an increasingly vocal group of employers asking why curriculums can’t be better aligned with the needs of industry. The government has pinned its hopes on the newly introduced T Levels, two year post-GCSE qualifications that are an alternative to A levels.

T levels are intended to bridge the gap between what’s taught in classrooms and the realities of a live work environment by including a minimum 45 day industry placement. This is significantly longer than traditional one or two week work placements, with the emphasis firmly on ‘doing’ rather than merely observing.

The first T levels were introduced in September 2020 and almost two dozen will be available by September 2023. The three engineering and manufacturing T levels – covering design, maintenance and process control – were available from September 2022. Only one of which includes a dedicated module on machining and even that is optional.

Will T levels prove successful? Mandy has her reservations. She’s not only concerned about the narrowness of what’s being taught but also about how funding is shared between colleges and businesses hosting placements.

Make UK is equally concerned, though they are more worried about securing sufficient placement numbers. It estimates that the engineering and manufacturing T level route will require as many as 43,500 placements to be provided by employers by 2024/25. Yet, less than one in ten (nine percent) eligible businesses currently hosts a placement and just 12% plan to in the coming year.

Reinstating the £1,000 financial incentive per industry placement for employers would certainly be a step in the right direction, said Make UK. Sixty percent of SMEs identified this as the top action government could take to enable businesses to offer placements and help address capacity and time commitment issues.

Safety systems fit for a Queen

For almost 50 years, Tybro has played a crucial role in contributing to the success of London Underground’s escalator division. In doing so, it is helping to keep millions of people safe on one of the world’s busiest transport networks.

Tybro’s relationship with London Underground started 45 years ago by helping redesign and enhance its original escalator emergency stop switch. This included adding additional safety features and making them more visible, safer and easier for the public to use.

Since then, Tybro has become a key supplier of a wide range of critical components to escalator OEMs and their contractors, helping maintain not only existing assets but also new routes and stations.

Today, Tybro is still a valued critical supplier to London Underground and contractors. The latest generation of its safety switches has been fitted into Bond Street’s Elizabethan Line station, which opened in October 2022.

“We’re very proud to continue to manufacture safety critical components to the underground,” Mandy commented. “Our reputation for manufacturing high-precision, safety-critical components is second to none. This is why customers like London Underground trust us as a key supplier year after year.”

Relevant education experiences

Rather than waiting for the situation to resolve itself, Mandy is taking control. She is currently in talks with West Nottinghamshire College and Nottingham Trent University to challenge the course offerings and align the curriculum more closely to the needs of local businesses.

One of her suggestions, if successfully implemented, could change how practical machining is taught nationally. “The nature of education and how curriculums are set-up mean that where colleges or universities have invested in modern machinery, it can sit idle for long periods. That isn’t good for them.

“My proposal is an open collaboration between a machine manufacturer or distributor, a college or university, a local business such as ourselves and a machine programming provider if needed.

“The cost of investment would be shared and the machine installed on our shopfloor. It would be made available to the college for teaching practical lessons and when not booked for that purpose, would be used by our workers.

“Students would receive a higher-level, real-world experience; machinery investment is maximised; the link between education and the workplace is strengthened; and Tybro benefits from additional capacity. I see that as a real win-win-win.”

It’s early days but Mandy added that the right people are beginning to listen: “There are major changes needed, but tweaking some of the things already in place would start us moving in the right direction.

“As manufacturers, employers and parents, it’s beholden on all of us to stand up and make some noise about this. There are some fantastic young people out there who are passionate about pursuing a career in industry. That number could be higher if we gave every student the opportunity to make something.

“We need to channel that passion by providing an engaging, enjoyable and most importantly, relevant education experience.”

Key takeaways:

  • Between 2011 and 2020, the number of design and technology (D&T) teachers in schools more than halved
  • There are growing calls for curriculums to better align with the needs of industry
  • T levels are designed to bridge the gap between classrooms and the world of work
  • Reinstating the £1,000 financial incentive for employers would enable more businesses to offer T level placements

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