There has been a great deal of talk about a lack of home-grown skills available to manufacturing and technology businesses in the UK, and the recent combination of Brexit and the pandemic has apparently done nothing to make that better – in fact it appears that skills are becoming even more in short supply.
Perception? Or reality?
For decades, UK manufacturing and engineering large scale industries have been in evident decline because of competition, lower costs and cheap transport moving much of the mass production overseas.
In the mid-20th century, many towns and cities had dominant businesses employing large numbers in manufacturing, so the familiarity with that industry came through family connections, and “going into engineering” was seen as a perfectly acceptable career route.
However now in the UK, our manufacturing industry is smaller, more focused around specialist, rather than mass manufacturing, and has developed into embracing technology, and that is seen as a major advance (which it is), and the older more manual methods can be abandoned (which they can’t).
So we have an ageing and dwindling workforce who understand better how things work physically and do things with their hands, followed by a younger workforce who have a strong understanding and reliance on technology, but little experience of the hands-on stuff.
“Hands-on” can sound so last-century, so crude, so “dirty”, and the way we educate now, that gap between the physical world and people is getting wider.
Why would anyone actually aspire to go into such a “dirty” industry, when they can work at a computer from their bedroom?
Manufacturing is no longer the oily, dirty, noisy, macho environment it acquired the reputation of, but neither is it sterile, detached and viewed only through computer screens.
The reality is that it’s a compromise.
And there are careers ready to take up.
We have two challenges here: one is to fill the skills gap that we already see, and the other is to bring in new blood and skills to the industry as the ageing workforce leaves.
MAT are taking steps to champion both approaches:
The British Armed Forces is a massive group organisation, in which skilled people are a major output. Whilst it is seen as primarily a defence machine, to make it work, it requires a huge range of skills to meet its needs, and it trains people to provide those skill requirements to a high level. They also train them to work as teams and leaders.
Once service personnel leave the forces, as civilians, they still have those skills, and they want people to use them!
We have pledged to support the armed forces through the Armed Forces Covenant. We know from experience that utilising the skills of ex-service personnel is a major plus, and has immediate benefits from their knowledge, practical and leadership abilities, and their loyalty, to plug a significant part of the skills gap in engineering and manufacturing.
It doesn’t require you to return a salute when you talk to them, either!
In order to build up a developing workforce, interest in engineering and manufacturing needs to be nurtured at schools. Students often only encounter a relatively small contact group of family, friends, teaching staff, retail and leisure, so their awareness of the current realities of industrial, engineering and manufacturing is usually pretty low.
Bringing that connection into schools so that students can find out more about what really happens in a workplace is an essential step. Moreover, giving them a context for the learning that they are currently doing, and demonstrating that what they learn has a real application, rather than it just being about packaged subjects and exams, means they can do far better and gain real enthusiasm and purpose.
Our MD, Peter, has signed up to be an Enterprise Advisor to local schools, to help make these connections a reality, and he hopes this will encourage more students to be more confident that there is a purpose to their education and that they can make their own way to be both independent and a valued member of society.
It can’t be just a pipedream. Let’s make it reality!