Where have all the engineers gone?

The UK’s decision to become a service-focused, office-based economy has taken a significant toll on the country’s labour market, with manufacturing paying the cost, according to a senior head of industry.

UK Manufacturer - Alongside innovation, a pro-active approach towards investing in technology is also playing a significant role – image courtesy of John Guest.
John Guest is a globally celebrated manufacturer of innovative plumbing systems and connector technology – image courtesy of John Guest.

Over the past three decades, the UK has undergone an economic revolution – almost directly mirroring the rise and ultimate omnipresence of personal computers and laptops. The UK has become a largely service-led economy, reliant on the nation’s status as a global finance and professional services powerhouse.

Coinciding with that transformation, vocational pathways were pushed to the wayside and society’s collective conscious (for the most part) lost touch with industry – not helped by waves of mass redundancies and the privatisation of national assets.

The tide would appear to be turning. The word ‘apprenticeships’ has re-entered Westminster’s parlance, vocational training providers are popping up across the nation, and we now have a whole government department with ‘Industrial Strategy’ emblazoned on its letterhead.

Undoing many years of neglect, however, won’t be an overnight task. Industry has been paying the price for “potentially short-sighted decisions made decades ago” and still is, according to Peter Short, director of manufacturing at world-leading plumbing systems company, John Guest.

The Manufacturer recently sat down with Peter Short to discuss the challenges UK manufacturing currently faces. It wasn’t long before skills rose to the fore.

Short commented: “As a country, we were taken down this road of being service-driven about 20 years ago, when many apprenticeships were wound up. We are suffering the ramifications from that today.

“There is a concern that certain government-backed apprenticeships will be somehow fast-tracked. That absolutely won’t happen [at John Guest], because we won’t allow it to happen. We’ve currently got 16 apprentices on the books and we are looking at taking on another eight this year.

“We have engineering apprenticeships, but we are also running similar schemes across our other departments. There are a lot of pure engineering colleges in the local area, but as soon as you narrow the focus to plastics, for example, the nearest is Telford, linked with Wolverhampton College.”

Telford’s not an easily accessible place for the West Drayton (Middlesex)-based business to send someone on day-release. As such, John Guest conducts training in-house through its own programmes, supported through external, block-release courses which are bolted on to provide full qualifications

Another part of the problem, according to Short, is that manufacturing isn’t perceived as being an exciting, rewarding career path, to the extent that ‘manufacturing’ has almost become a dirty word.

He noted: “We are seeing that effect throughout the business, across every department and all skillsets. To counter that, we have a strong apprenticeship programme, but we also attend many careers fairs and engage with local schools to try and attract the next-generation back into the industrial environment.”