Mind the gap

Manufacturing is enjoying something of a renaissance, with pledges from the government to invest in this once-ailing sector of the economy. However, there is a real need to fill the pipeline of skilled engineers in the UK, if it is to thrive in the long term.

Closer examination of some statistics highlights the central importance of the manufacturing sector to the UK and its crucial role in our future economic health.

According to the Office for National Statistics, the sector employs over 2.5 million people and accounts for some 150,000 companies across the UK – producing goods to the value of over £25 billion per annum.

Everyone is aware of the profound effect the financial crisis of the past few years has had and with it the dawning realisation that the UK must re-balance its economy away from a reliance upon the financial services sector. Indeed, the financial downturn brought the national economic constitution into sharp focus and highlighted a clear imperative: Britain needs to get back to the business of making things. Numerous factors, including the relative absence of government support for manufacturing over the past 20 years, have contributed to a proportional decline for the sector which has seen its contribution to GDP fall to 10% from a figure closer to 18% in 1990.

The present coalition government – as well as the previous Labour administration – has recognised the need to increase rate support for the sector. High profile focus advocated via the Advanced Manufacturing Growth Review including the introduction of the £200 million high value manufacturing technology centres, university technical colleges and initiatives such as ‘Make it in GB’, are collectively attempting to place greater emphasis on supporting manufacturing.

But behind all the headlines lies a challenge for the sector and it concerns real fears of a growing skills gap. The need to attract, educate and train the vast numbers of apprentices, technicians and engineering graduates that are going to be required in the future is becoming pressing – especially when set against a backdrop of an ageing engineering workforce that year-on-year is seeing highly qualified and experienced engineers leaving the sector through retirement.

Dick Oliver, Chairman of BAE Systems recently estimated the UK will require another half a million engineers nationally the year 2017 to reverse the growing skills shortages. In the West Midlands –the heartland of Britain’s manufacturing heritage – it is estimated that over 100,000 new entrants will be required to support the many large scale and growing regional manufacturers, and the supply chain that feeds them. With this in mind, the University of Wolverhampton has teamed up with industry to create and launch what is being viewed as a radical and innovative education approach. It will join up industry, government and academia in an integrated fashion to appropriately prepare young people for a career in engineering.

Professor Richard Hall from the University of Wolverhampton outlines the thinking behind a programme called, ‘Gearing-up for Industrial Growth’. He says: “As a nation and a region, if we are to have any hope of closing the engineering skills gap and providing the manufacturing industry with the level of expertise needed at apprentice, technician and graduate level, we have to adopt a new way forward. Having consulted closely with industry partners such as Jaguar Land Rover,

Caterpillar, many smaller companies in the supplier chain, plus skills bodies such as SEMTA (the Sector Skills Council for Science, Engineering and Manufacturing Technologies), the University is now developing a pilot two year manufacturing engineering degree course. This is designed specifically to provide learners not only with the academic knowledge they require, but also the industrial experience to make them work-ready.

“The real difference with the new degree is that the students will be carrying out their learning in an industrial setting at a company, supported by the team at the University of Wolverhampton. It will not be limited to the classroom and will provide a faster qualified engineer rather than the often part-time traditional engineering degrees on offer. It is a true collaboration with industry, which has been fully involved in setting out what it wants to see in the course delivery. We have assembled leaders from a wide range of high value manufacturing companies and other stakeholders to get behind the new manufacturing degree and we have been delighted with the positive response.”

Richard Hall continues, “The idea will be that young learners from local schools and colleges will be sponsored by industry to come into the programme, or they may already be employed but not be qualified; and at the end of the course, they are ready to continue work with our industrial partners. In this way, working with university technical colleges and local academies, we will be able to scale up numbers to meet local needs.”

It is envisaged that students leaving the course will have the required combination of industrial experience and academic theory to make them highly valuable in the eyes of potential manufacturing employers. They will be ideally prepared to enter the workplace and add value to the businesses they join. They can, in the opinion of Richard Hall, ‘hit the ground running’.

The pilot framework for the two year course has been agreed and curriculum details are currently being finalised. All stakeholders are extremely hopeful that the output from the course will start to eat into the skills gap, as well as proving attractive to talented youngsters who may previously have given an engineering career a wide berth.

Professor Hall concludes, “It is a win-win situation. Students, I believe, will vote with their feet and see the merits of the course. Financially they will not face the worries of student fees and they will be able to see the real possibility of gainful, rewarding employment on the horizon. From an industry perspective, companies will have access to a growing band of recruits that have spent 24 months gaining vital industry-based experience, as well as academic support, negating the need for subsequent, and costly, graduate training. Ultimately, the goal is the creation of a national skills factory to tackle the alarming numbers Dick Oliver alluded to by offering a seamless route from study to industry, and a fulfilling and rewarding career in a sector that can generate wealth for the Midlands region, and the nation as a whole.”

 

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