FEATURE: Experts and industry leaders on how to solve the skills crisis


Students at AME gain experience of real-world manufacturing challenges  (Credit: AME)
Students at AME gain experience of real-world manufacturing challenges (Credit: AME)

By one estimate, the UK has a shortfall of 40,000 engineers. We asked experts and industry leaders for their ideas on how to overcome the problem

Highlight the benefits of automation

Martyn Williams, managing director of industrial software provider COPA-DATA

One of the criticisms of the industry is the failure to portray what a career in engineering consists of – perhaps due to a lack of understanding in schools. It is down to those working in the sector to ensure that this perception changes.  

Studies to benchmark young people’s awareness about engineering almost always have similar results, stereotyping it as an ‘oily rag’ profession plagued with repetitive and menial tasks. For those of us in the sector, we know this isn’t true. 

Consider this as an example – robotics in manufacturing has reduced the need for human operators to manually complete pick-and-place, assembly and inspection tasks. In electronics components manufacturing, a Scara robot can complete the assembly process faster and more accurately than a human worker, allowing employees to take on more varied tasks. 

The misconception that engineering jobs are boring, repetitive and uncreative simply isn’t true. To dispel this myth, the industry needs to highlight the advantages of automation – it won’t replace jobs, just make them more interesting.

Companies must nurture young talent

Matthew Snelson, managing director of the Marches Centre of Manufacturing and Technology

Our apprentices are instantly won over when they see the environment they will be working in. It is bright and crammed full of technology that most of their peers might never get to use. Better still, the course content has been developed by three employers and an Ofsted ‘outstanding’ training provider.

It’s a powerful combination, and one we hope to help others replicate across the UK. If we can get more companies to take responsibility for growing the pipeline of available engineering talent and not just their own staff, then we are in with a chance of bridging the skills and competency gaps.

Manufacturers must take control

Cy Wilkinson, managing director of steering system design and manufacturing company Pailton Engineering

Manufacturers need to take control and mitigate a future dip in output by investing in closing the skills gap. Manufacturing businesses already have the three core things they need to succeed: industry insight, technical knowledge and people passionate about the industry. 

To stave off the negative impact of a skills shortage, we must capitalise on the most valuable resource at our disposal – our people. At Pailton Engineering, for example, we have developed a programme of continuous cross-training to share highly technical skills. 

Historically, individuals would specialise in the operation of one machine. Our training programme has been designed to share that individual’s knowledge with others. 

This not only allows us to operate more efficiently, with machines able to run across all three of our shifts, it supports the professional development of our team, increasing earning potential and staff satisfaction.

Reach out to families and teachers

Lynn Willacy, community and STEM ambassador at multinational Air Products

Government has a central part to play, but as the main beneficiary of incoming talent the sector itself should be at the forefront of change.

We all have a responsibility to ensure that STEM outreach activity moves beyond ‘nice to have’ to become a key part of business strategy. Effective engagement means not just reaching out to potential recruits but also to those that influence them – parents, grandparents and teachers are all key.

At Air Products this has been central to our thinking. We are looking outside traditional academia and extending our efforts to the community at large, targeting events that will attract those from different age groups and backgrounds.

Combine study with work

Carl Perrin from the Institute for Advanced Manufacturing and Engineering (AME) 

By hosting the institute on the same site as a Unipart factory, we ensured that engineers and researchers can work together easily and AME graduates get the best of both worlds. The first graduation was a real milestone moment, with all students securing work with manufacturers in the UK.

This is just the start. We now have 100 young people studying with us, and we are continually looking at ways to add new modules so they can hit the ground running when they leave.

When they graduate from AME, they should be able to fit into a workplace with ease, having had experience of working on realtime manufacturing projects, solving issues that are costing a company money and dealing with all types of personalities in a team. You can’t put a price on that experience.

Harness enthusiasm and talent in schools

Lucy Speed, HR adviser at engineering solutions provider Boulting 

Introducing dedicated STEM activities or guest speakers in school classrooms will pave the way for students to consider their future paths. Working with and supporting teachers to understand what STEM careers can entail will also open up conversations with students about what is possible. 

Organisations like Boulting, which incorporates student outreach and collaboration programmes to help harness the enthusiasm and talent of younger generations, have the potential to increase interest in STEM education and apprenticeship opportunities.

It’s important for organisations to recognise the importance and potential of the future workforce, and secure any opportunity to help promote science, technology, engineering and maths as exciting and rewarding career paths.

Share talent around the globe

Christian Jeanneau, senior vice-president at engineering group Assystem

To tackle the skills challenge, there is a clear need to develop a portfolio of experts across all specialisms. Tapping into global expertise to support this evolution is integral. Skills sharing across the globe will provide a vital solution for the UK’s engineering industry.

There is already a bilateral collaboration between the UK and France in large-scale nuclear development, but there is a need for more fixed agreements for similar collaborations across wider engineering projects. This is something we need to encourage.

Invest in postgraduate qualifications

Benjamin Silverstone, programme leader of degree apprenticeships and quantitative business at Arden University

Engineering managers need to balance leadership skills with a good understanding of the wider context of engineering operations and their role in the global industry. However, the fast-paced world of leadership and management often leaves little time for the acquisition of new skills. The opportunities in part-time postgraduate programmes that combine management with wider industry topics, such as those at Arden, enable managers to upskill while continuing to work and gaining valuable experience. 

The best university courses provide the opportunity to apply the skills directly to the workplace, utilising real examples from the individual’s own organisation. Developing these management skills will provide additional career prospects and make an applicant much more attractive to engineering firms.

Use augmented reality

Youssef Mestari, programme director of the Connected Plant initiative at engineering giant Honeywell

With up to 50% of plant personnel due to pick up their pensions within the next five years, many organisations are at risk of allowing valuable knowledge to walk out the door with their retirees.

Traditional education is one solution. But in the short term it’s more important that companies find effective ways to retain the years of on-the-job experience they already have. Intelligent deployment of emerging technologies will play a central role here, with solutions like augmented reality providing new ways to record industry veterans at work, creating active assistance for workers and immersive training sessions. 

Augmented reality has been shown to reduce technical training from six to just two months.

In a business environment where markets are unpredictable and margins are tightening, finding efficient ways to retain skills, accelerate training and cut costs will be key to remaining competitive.

Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

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