Report from the National Manufacturing Debate 24th May 2017

The recent National Manufacturing Debate, organised by Cranfield University and attended by leading companies and institutions from the manufacturing sector, had a clear message: although there’s a lot of good work being done, it is critical for the growth of manufacturing in the UK that we address the skills shortage – right now.

This subject has been discussed before. Professor Rajkumar Roy, Director of Manufacturing at Cranfield University, made the point: “We’ve been talking about this for over ten years, but the problem still exists”. This message was repeated by almost every speaker. Allan Cook, the Chairman of Atkins, was perhaps the most direct when he said, “We’re already in a crisis situation. It’s rapidly getting worse; although some of what we’re doing to fix it is good, it’s simply not enough”.

Policy, image & wages

There are various factors at the heart of the problem. These include among others: the historical lack of a long term industrial policy from successive Governments; the poor image that engineering has at both an academic level and with the public as a whole – there are simply not enough young people interested in engineering; and wage disparity between engineering and sectors such as finance.

Steps are being taken in the right direction. From a strategic perspective, the outgoing Government accepted the need for a long term industrial policy and earlier this year launched a consultation on a green paper setting out its vision.

This represents an excellent statement of intent and is therefore to be welcomed. However, according to Professor John Loughland, Chief Scientific Advisor at BEIS (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), speaking at the National Manufacturing Debate, only 2,000 responses were received. That’s a pitifully small number, considering that according to EngineeringUK there are over 600,000 engineering companies in the UK.

Many companies invest heavily in developing apprentices. However, based on figures from the House of Commons Library, although the number of apprentices in the economy as a whole has increased significantly in recent years, the number in the engineering segment has remained almost static. According to EngineeringUK, we need to double the number of engineering apprentices every year to make up the annual shortfall of 69,000 trained engineers and technicians.

In terms of the public image of engineering, organisations such as the Manufacturing Technologies Association (MTA) do some excellent work in promoting apprenticeship schemes. Interestingly, the MTA also encourages students and apprentices to visit trade shows and is planning to extend this idea to include parents at next year’s MACH exhibition. Despite this, as I pointed out in a recent blog, the vast majority of UK trade shows rarely attract significant numbers of students.

More to the point, the mainstream media has traditionally portrayed the manufacturing sector – when it mentions it at all – in terms that often conjure up images of dark satanic Victorian mills. Although this is slowly changing, thanks to high profile developments such as the discovery of Graphene, the Bloodhound project and the London Crossrail engineering scheme, positive media coverage remains infrequent and is often buried where parents, teachers and students will never find it.

Encouraging young people to choose engineering as a career is only part of the story. Neil Carberry, Director for People and Skills at the CBI, pointed out in his presentation that, ‘most people who will be in the workforce in 2035 are already in the workplace today’. Therefore, retaining existing talent is as important as attracting new entrants to the sector.

What’s the solution?

The broad consensus from the debate was that there is no quick or simple fix. Speaker after speaker was at pains to point out that although many manufacturing companies are individually taking action to address the issue, their work is fragmented and without an industry-wide sense of strategy or direction.

This is understandable. Individual companies have to look after their own interests and will implement skills and leadership training in the way that best fits their business model; unfortunately, this can mean that training does not always receive a high priority. However, as Professor Roy pointed out, ‘companies need to understand that there is a direct relationship between skills and profit’, quoting the statistic that for every 1% increase in training days there is a 3% increase in productivity.

From the Government’s perspective it’s clear that the previous administration wanted industry to take the lead in setting the vision and strategy, taking the view that Government can influence but not direct proceedings. Neil Carberry stressed that Government was no longer trying to drive strategy from the top down, but was now putting the emphasis on industry to set the agenda, while Professor Loughland pointed out that considerable sums are already being invested by Government in a wide range of training and skills development schemes, ‘The key is to spend this money wisely. Industry needs to step-up and tell Government what’s required – to define the priorities’.

If this approach is to work, then the greatest challenge for industry is to find a common voice through which to address Government. The key trade bodies, such as the EEF, IET and MTA all have roles to play here; although they perhaps have more to do to encourage their members, especially SMEs, to take part in the broader debate. Similarly, the trade and technical media can be extremely influential and some publications, such as The Manufacturer, have already devoted considerable column inches to raising awareness of the issues.

Whether this will be sufficient, given the size of the sector and the numbers of disparate companies and organisations, only time will tell. Personally, I believe that without a strong lead from Government, informed and guided by the manufacturing sector, it will be difficult to set and maintain any form of industrial strategy that truly benefits the country and the engineering community in the long term.

Useful links:

A link to download Cranfield University’s white paper ‘UK Manufacturing Skills Shortages, Leadership and Investment’ can be found through this link.

Nick Brooks

Nick is the founder and Managing Director of 4CM Ltd with over 35 years experience in developing powerful and cost effective marketing, media and communications programmes.