Engineering skills shortage: why collaboration provides the solution

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1 min read

We know UK manufacturing and engineering has a big skills shortage.

According to a government study, 186,000 skilled Engineers are needed annually until 2024 to plug the skills gap, and almost 20% of the current workforce is due to retire by 2026 according to the ECITB.

However, reporting of the skills shortage rarely goes beyond referencing big numbers such as these and suggesting that we ‘need to inspire more young people to pursue careers within the sector’, whilst ‘changing perceptions’.

Those two things are true, but they only shed light on a small part of the solution.

What is less widely reported are the huge differences across the industry in a manufacturers’ ability to build skilled talent for the future, that also addresses their high-level business challenges such as digitising the shop floor, scaling production and increasing efficiency.

To compete, thrive and grow in an ever-changing industry, new skills are essential – and a successful Apprenticeship scheme is central to that.

Forward-thinking manufacturers that are successfully running apprenticeship schemes report an increase in innovation, technological advancement, productivity, competitiveness and ultimately, profitability.

However, an inability to plan for skills strategically, develop the required organisational culture and then attract and retain talented apprentices is costing engineering & manufacturing firms up to £40,000* per apprentice in sunk costs. Furthermore, it is limiting their ability to compete, grow and find solutions to the high-level business challenges at the same time.

When speaking with many UK engineering firms, it is clear that short-term pressures to get products out of the door leads to sacrificing thinking about the future, such as skills. Many manufacturers recognise that they need to invest in the next generation of engineers but have limited knowledge of how best to do so and how to develop a plan to achieve it.

From creating a plan that identifies future skills requirements, to attracting and retaining young engineers as part of running successful Apprenticeship schemes, unless manufacturing firms ‘level up’ their ability to achieve this, the skills shortage will continue to get worse and such businesses will struggle to compete in an ever-changing industry.

This is contrasted by the approach taken by engineering and manufacturing firms in countries such as Germany, wherein a culture exists whereby more widely engineering firms are embracing change, digitising and adopting new technologies whilst recruiting for Apprentices with skills to fill roles that do not yet exist – but that will need to exist for them to maximise both their use of the new technology and to sustain their competitive edge moving forward.

Rather than refer to the skills shortage in collective, industry-wide numbers, we are more likely to enact change and find solutions if it is referred to from a ‘per company’ perspective. If thousands of manufacturers were to implement the required changes in approach, collectively the impact would be huge and the overall numbers would improve considerably.

To enable those UK manufacturers that want to level up in this area to do so, there is much to be said for the sharing of best practice. For example, digging deeper into what it is that manufacturers that are successfully future-proofing and running Apprenticeship schemes do, how they do it and why.

A solution to make this collaborative learning accessible and easily implementable to SME and corporate manufacturers alike, is currently being pioneered by Next Gen Makers.

Managing Director Adam Tipper comments: “When it comes to solving the skills shortage, there is so much that engineering firms can learn from the best practice of others that have been there and done it – with proven results. For example, Next Gen Makers have established our Engineering Apprenticeships: Employer Advisory Board, which includes representatives from engineering firms of a variety of sizes and industries that are achieving business goals through adopting a strategic approach to skills and apprenticeships.

“Choosing a variety in the type of manufacturer for this was deliberate, to ensure that the thought leadership created from discussions within this group is relevant to a broad range of engineering firms.

“From corporates including Jaguar Land Rover, Sulzer, Lander Automotive and Ishida Europe, to SME manufacturers such as Warren Services, Brown & Holmes and SMB Pressings, we are able to garner a variety of unique perspectives and approaches to resolving similarly high-level business challenges through skills and apprenticeship schemes. We already have so much valuable thought leadership to share and develop further and we will be widening out the number of companies contributing best practice in the coming months”.

Accumulating best practice is only the start. Such insight needs to be made accessible to manufacturers in a way that makes sense to their business and guides them to implement it for themselves”.

To achieve this, working in partnership with Principle Partners MSC Industrial Supply Co. UK (MSC UK), Next Gen Makers has launched its dedicated Engineering Apprenticeship: Best Practice Programme, an online resource onto which engineering firms can enrol, to be guided through a four-stage process to future-proof their business; learning directly from the real-world best practice of other engineering firms.

From skills gap analysis and people planning, developing the right culture for Apprenticeships, attracting and retaining apprentice talent and how to ensure they have the skills to best capitalise on emerging technologies – companies will follow a step-by-step process led by video case studies, peer to peer ideas sharing sessions and an expansive online toolkit.

As part of their ongoing efforts to help UK manufacturing and engineering firms to increase operational efficiency, effectiveness and overall competitiveness by ensuring they adopt the right skills and approaches, MSC UK will play a pivotal role in helping to engage its customer base of metalworking manufacturers with the Best Practice Programme.

Dave Darby, Managing Director, MSC Industrial Supply Co. UK adds: “At MSC we work closely with our 20,000+ manufacturing customers. We are seeing more of the forward-thinking businesses accelerate their plans to either increase the number of apprentices or take on an apprentice for the first time.

“The benefits that they share with us include: A fresh injection of new ideas, increased energy and enthusiasm; the opportunity to create a more diverse workforce and a cost-effective way of addressing the skills shortage. They also recognise that they are supporting the economy by giving young people the chance of entering a rewarding career in manufacturing and engineering. Finally, the training that the apprentices receive at college equips them with new skills that support the transition to Industry 4.0.

“This is why we partner with Next Gen Makers and are very proud to support the launch of their ground-breaking Engineering Apprenticeship: Best Practice Programme”.

There is not a one size fits all solution to the skills shortage and future-proofing a business, with every manufacturer being different from another.

However, companies involved in the Next Gen Makers Engineering Apprenticeship: Best Practice Programme will develop the competencies to implement a hybrid of solutions that work best for their company, business goals and culture.

Adam Tipper concludes: “Einstein’s definition of insanity is doing the same things repeatedly and expecting different results. Before commercialising the automobile, Henry Ford remarked that if he would have asked the public what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse. As a manufacturing business owner or leader, why would you persist with methods that are not getting you the results you want or need, when you could easily learn from and replicate a proven way of succeeding that has been evidenced by companies just like yours?”

*typical investment based on qualitative research by Next Gen Makers

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