You’re hired! Now, what’s the square root of 25?

Posted on 12 May 2011 by The Manufacturer

Only 5% of new apprenticeship starts in England are in pure engineering-related jobs and skills provision is still light years from being employer-led, manufacturers and trainers learn at the EEF North East Skills Summit.

Representatives from across manufacturing in the North East faced up to some harsh truths about the state of the region’s skills provision in Newcastle on Thursday.

The skills provision market is still geared to provide apprentices and university places “designed to meet arbitrary targets” rather than being demand-led and driven by the real skills needs of employers.

Government’s short-termist habit of launching well-intentioned initiatives to provide more engineering-centric skills, only to be cancelled a few years later, was also heavily criticised.

At the debut Manufacturing Skills Summit hosted by EEF, senior panellists including chief executive of Semta, Philip Whiteman, Andrew Battarbee from the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills, Siemens’ Juergen Maier and leader of the North East EEF Skills Group, Andrew Esson, revealed the results of the latter group’s first survey of skills provision to the 150-strong audience.

Polling 190 regional companies, that generated 110 fully completed responses, the survey found that for the typical profile of a local manufacturing business, 30% of employees were due to retire in the next five years. But companies would be unable to adequately replace more than half of this number based on the region’s existing skills provision infrastructure.

The survey identified serious shortages of key manufacturing skills including CNC machine tool operators, CAD skills, welding and metal fabricating. It also showed up a worrying deficit of financial and management skills suitable for manufacturing companies.

While the North East’s position in the national league table for engineering-centric NVQ Level 3 and higher qualifications had risen from the bottom spot of the nine regions in 2000 to sixth place in 2010, the percentage of children with five GCSEs above ‘C’ grade including English and Maths was below the national average.

Only 51% of the surveyed companies were eligible for funding under the government’s SME support scheme, with the remainder mainly UK divisions of large foreign companies.

The sell-out summit – with delegates from a range of local SMEs and big companies like BAE Systems, Caterpillar, Siemens and Thyssen Krupp, as well as higher education institutions and a host of training providers – focused heavily on apprenticeships as a means to fulfil employers’ skills needs and to attract young people into manufacturing careers.

But the survey revealed the alarming fact that of 213,000 new apprenticeship starts nationwide since 2009, sector skills council Semta can confirm that only 15,000 of these are in engineering and manufacturing disciplines.
The North East Skills Sub Group was formed in January 2010 to deliver more meaningful information about employers skills needs in the region, following a shared frustration concerning the ‘increasingly ambiguous role’ of the Sector Skills Councils (SSCs).
Philip Whiteman, chief executive of the largest skills council Semta, admitted that the current marketplace for skills provision was confusing and in urgent need of simplification. Several efforts were underway to achieve this, he said. He also said it would take a long time for young people to change the common default attitude to manufacturing employment, which in the North East had been blighted by painful memories of events like the closure of the Tyne shipyards and the break-up of one-time key employer, chemicals group ICI.
But he stressed that several good programmes had come from the SSCs efforts. He praised the Engineering Diploma, which offered high quality maths tuition and served as a functional course for candidates without adequate maths skills for certain engineering careers.
Andrew Esson, managing director of local award-winning subsea hose system manufacturer Contitech Beattie, and who chairs the NE Skills Group, revealed a degree sponsorship approach that avoids high university tuition fees. His company has sponsored two employees to attain bachelor degrees, at a cost of £2,200 each per year, from full-time workplace study. Assessed nearly entirely by coursework and accredited by Leeds Metropolitan University, Mr Esson believes the model could offer a very compelling ‘third option’ to 18-year olds and parents anxious about university fees of up to £9,000 per year.
Deputy director of Sector Skills Policy and Councils, Andrew Battarbee, defended the worryingly low percentage of engineering apprentices in the 213,000 total. Claiming the comparison with soft-skilled apprenticeships like bar tending and hairdressing as a ‘cheap shot’, he said service sector apprenticeships should not be dismissed as in many cases they would lead to reliable employment. However, he accepted that more work was required to redress the balance so that manufacturing-relevant apprenticeships occupied a higher proportion of the total.

Despite this several delegates, including master of ceremonies and local TV personality Wendy Gibson, said there was a need for government to more carefully define the true meaning of an apprentice, lest the term became devalued.

An end to stop and start
Managing director of Siemens Industry UK Juergen Maier pointed to the oft-lamented, short-termist tendency for governments to scrap skills programmes before they had become effective, lamenting the stop-start culture of both skills provision and the wider political strategy for manufacturing. Mr Battarbee accepted that British governments of all colours had been guilty of terminating skills provision programmes before they had been given an adequate chance to convey positive change, and that better consistency in government policy here was needed. But he also highlighted that the government had made some important advances in the skills field, through the provision of 12 University Technical Colleges, or UTCs, for 14 to 19-year olds. The first of which, the JCB Academy in Rocester, which he had recently visited, was already producing more engineering- and business-savvy students. It opened in September 2010.

Mr Battarbee also told the summit that the Government had accepted the recommendations of the recent Wolf Report that assessed the transition of skills from education to industry, and he said that many of these recommendations would be put into effect.
Terry Scuoler, chief executive of EEF and a panellist at the summit, said there was measurable evidence that the perception of manufacturing as a career was improving, and that while the school system had served industry relatively badly, he said “don’t beat up on the British system too much or blame the youngsters themselves,” as subject selection was not the fault of schoolchildren and there were still many things that education gets right. He warned of being too reliant on government to come up with the answers to skills shortages, and joined other panellists in emphasising that the solution had to be demand-led from employers.

The final word of the afternoon panel session went to Martin Laffey of A&P Tyne, winner of EEF’s First Year Apprentice award for the North East region. “I’ve had a very good apprenticeship experience, but there is far too much out-of-date documentation, where the job’s real requirements are ahead of the lecture material,” he said. “Also I’m grateful I got this aged 22. People talk about making decisions at the age of 14, but I was more interested in girls and video games then than a career. You’re more mentally strong to make decisions about your future between age 20 and 30, but the system you’ve discussed today is asking kids to make choices at 14.”

A full report of the EEF Manufacturing Skills Summit will appear in the June issue of TM