What’s the best way of recruiting young people in to manufacturing?

Spreading the word in schools is a recognised route to recruiting young people into manufacturing careers – but what is the best way to do this? Katherine Mathieson argues that the disparate plethora of small and large initiatives must link up to maximise their impact.

School Children Classroom Teacher - Stock“What we need to do is go into schools.” It sounds so straightforward, doesn’t it?

Not enough young people are choosing engineering careers, so engineers need to build a new activity programme for schools in order to change that. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.

The scale of the challenge is clear. Almost 70% of manufacturing employers surveyed for Hennik’s latest Annual Manufacturing Report said they struggle to recruit skilled workers.

In that report, it’s clear that the UK’s manufacturing sector punches well above its weight, coming eighth in a global league table of manufacturing output despite being ranked at 21 for population and 78 for land area (UN figures).

In their latest ‘state of the nation’ report, EngineeringUK forecasts an annual shortage of more than 20,000 engineers. Shortages will continue to be especially acute for higher-level skills (see: www.engineeringuk.com/research).

 This article first appeared in the December / January issue of The Manufacturer magazine. To subscribe, please click here. 

Manufacturing professionals are working hard on the problem

One of the most important tools we have for addressing this challenge is the passion and commitment of people and organisations across the manufacturing sector. Many people are willing to donate their own time and energy to set up visits to schools, competitions, hands-on activities. I have seen hundreds of such activities.

But is this proliferation of activity the best possible use of that valuable time and energy? I recognise the temptations of setting up a shiny new initiative. The founder gets to decide on a name, a target audience and a type of activity that fits their own interests. Companies can see their logo and brand values taking centre stage in the new scheme.

So, what’s the problem?

When a thousand flowers bloom, as the saying goes, it becomes very difficult for anyone to know which flower is best suited to the environment.

Already, overworked teachers face the difficult task of trying to select an initiative that will work best for their students from among the hundreds of available schemes. Some schools get better at attracting schemes and activities – while other schools languish in so-called ‘cold spots’ with very little extra support.

Recruiting Young People into Manufacturing School Children Classroom STEM - Stock
There is still little evidence about the long-term impact of extracurricular activities and there are so many pitfalls that aren’t always easily avoided.

Often, this kind of unequal provision mirrors other inequalities: the schools with little extra support are the schools which are already in challenging circumstances, dealing with economic and social deprivation, high staff vacancies, and squeezed budgets.

Knowing what works

Another factor is that knowing what works is often not straightforward or intuitive. There is relatively little evidence about the long-term impact of extracurricular activities and there are so many pitfalls that aren’t always easily avoided.

Well-meaning volunteers may inadvertently reinforce stereotypes instead of challenging them, which would be a great shame given the energy and dedication that they bring. Activities may be pitched at the wrong level or young people may not see how it is relevant to them.

Large engineering firms are better placed to refine and adapt, based on evaluation of their delivery over many years. Companies like Siemens, BP, 3M and many others have a strong track record here, and can provide a leadership role for the sector. But 80% of engineering enterprises have four or fewer employees.

For smaller organisations and individuals, it makes much more sense to join an established national scheme that has regular evaluation and improvement built in – and this is exactly what the Royal Society and CBI recommend in their joint report, Making Education Your Business.

Working together

We rely heavily on the generosity and energy of today’s engineers to inspire the next generation, and I would always encourage industry workers to volunteer their time and expertise if they can, as it is so rewarding.

However, I strongly believe that if we do more to effectively channel this generosity and energy, into a coherent and united front, we can – together – have a much bigger impact.

The key networks 

STEM Ambassadors: joining this network provides people in the manufacturing sector with a range of school-oriented activities to choose from, along with the opportunity to receive training and development, and a criminal records check.


Tomorrow’s Engineers: a portfolio of extra-curricular inspiration activities led by engineering employers. Local managers in each region of the UK can provide practical advice to employers.


Science Live: individuals interested in doing activities with community groups can list themselves on the Science Live website, which matches speakers, volunteers and organisers of community-based science events.


CREST Awards: provides fiveto 19-year-olds with guidance and recognition for their own creative, hands-on science and engineering projects that give them an authentic experience of being a scientist or engineer.

Pupils who did a Silver level CREST achieved, on average, half a grade higher in their best science GCSE and were 20% more likely to choose STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) ‘A’ levels.


Katherine Mathieson

Chief Executive, the British Science Association and a trustee of the Enthuse Trust and Royal Commonwealth Society

(Disclosure note: the British Science Association runs CREST Awards, and the Enthuse Trust funds some of the work of STEM Learning, which runs STEM Ambassadors).