UK manufacturers urged to equip their workers with a broader range of skills

Posted on 4 Sep 2019 by The Manufacturer

Each month, The Manufacturer explores a section of the latest Annual Manufacturing Report, which gauges the mood of leadership teams on issues such as Growth & Exports, Government Policy & Industrial Strategy, and Finance & Investment. This month, we look at Skills & Training.

Skills and recruitment represent the most pressing item on most manufacturers’ agenda.

“Manufacturing employers are hungry for engineers with the skills to satisfy current requirements, but often complain of university graduates or apprentices that come to them unable to perform certain essential tasks,” said Asif Moghal, Senior Industry Manager – Manufacturing, Business Strategy and Marketing at Autodesk.

Annual Manufacturing Report 2019 - Skills and Training - UK manufacturers attitudes

“We believe the UK must equip its workforce with a broader range of skills, earlier, and empower them to identify and add to their skills as their careers develop,” Asif added.

These skills could include applying ‘design thinking’ and greater interpersonal skills to traditional problems, or leveraging social platforms and coding skills to connect with customers directly and change the experience of buying, owning and operating products.

The lost generation

We effectively lost a generation of manufacturers after the de-industrialisation of the 1970s and 1980s, said the Annual Manufacturing Report, and manufacturing retreated into the shadows as successive governments fixed all their attention on services, particularly finance.

Parents and grandparents, whose only experience of manufacturing was as a dirty, second-best career option, agreed with the government that the only way forward for a young person was a degree, and steered their offspring away from manufacturing, and all the associated trades that make it happen.

Apprenticeship Levy

The May government tried to row back from this recline with a new Apprenticeship Levy, by which companies with payrolls in excess of £3m annually pay into a fund from which all companies can then draw to fund their training.

Instead of encouraging new apprenticeships, there was a precipitous fall-off in uptake in 2018 as companies steered clear of what they saw as a clumsy process and complained the Levy was tantamount to a tax.

More companies support the Levy this year (49%) than last year (40%), although only a derisory 4% are wholeheartedly in favour. Hardly a ringing endorsement of a flagship policy.

That said, UK manufacturers appear to be encouraged by the revival of apprenticeships over the last few years, even if 28% believe the system is expensive, confusing and tilted to the benefit of larger companies.

We do need education

Everything stems from the education system and whether it’s doing right by manufacturing. Given the slowness of the system to adapt – which is inevitable, given its size and how policy changes can take years to implement – it’s perhaps understandable that only 43%, the same this year as last, think it is doing a good job.

It is not just schools, of course, that are involved in apprenticeships. Further Education colleges provide the classroom learning that is a critical part of the process. Not everyone finds it a good experience.

AMR 2019 - Manufacturers believe strongly that Apprenticeships are coming into their own

Perhaps inevitably, more and more companies are starting their own training centres, either on their own if they’re big enough, or in collaboration with other local companies.

“We prefer to train our own juniors in-house, outside of the official apprentice scheme,” said an executive of a metalworking company.

“We can teach them the specifics of our shop floor, they’re working on our shop floor all the time while learning, and they seem to come out the other end with more loyalty to the company and its people.”

Time is against us

We also asked if it was government’s job to provide UK manufacturers with a trained workforce. Only 15% said ‘yes’, the majority saying it is up to employers to shape the workforce of the future.

A similar majority of companies said however that the government is not addressing the skills gap properly across the range of policy, including immigration. This negative response of 59% compares with 53% in 2018, which should alarm policymakers.

Time is not on our side. With every year, more experienced workers retire, and there are too few coming through to replace them.

It is more than apparent from the formation of government policy around Brexit that priority has been given to putting up barriers to immigration first, then worrying about how to provide manufacturing (and other sectors of the economy) with the workers they rely upon.

“As the survey results demonstrate, the issue of skills and training is front and centre of the manufacturing sector’s concerns right now,” added Asif Moghal of Autodesk.

“It is vital that solutions proposed by policymakers dovetail not only with manufacturers’ needs today, but with what they will need tomorrow.”

“Our experience of developing our team through our local college has been enormously disappointing. It would seem that their ability to attract and retain teachers and lecturers is particularly poor, to the point where they are now trying to recruit from the apprentice student base. Poaching from the companies that they are here to support surely can’t be a solution, and by all accounts ours is not a unique case,”

Laura McBrown, Managing Director, G&B Electronic Designs

“The experience that we’ve had with the apprentice scheme is that, even with financial assistance, it costs the business a significant amount to have apprentices in the system. This is because they spend a lot of time at college and not on the shop floor, and also because the skills they learn at college are not directly useful on our shop floor – we have to effectively train them again to get the most from them. On top of this, some apprentices want experience at another workplace when they’ve finished their time with us, and many leave once they are qualified. As an aside, this used to help us as an SME as we’d pick up the apprentices from the big companies nearby when they were looking to move,”

Business Development Manager, metalworking company

This is part of a series of articles about the skills crisis facing the UK manufacturing sector.

The series examines some of the serious problems affecting skills and training – and some of the positive initiatives aimed at producing a manufacturing workforce fit for the future.