Blog: Exploring the workforce challenge
Last week was the annual Advanced Engineering show, the UK’s leading gathering of OEMs and engineering supply chain professionals.
As usual, the show was packed with great suppliers, leading innovations and inspirational talks from some of the best in the world of manufacturing and engineering.
The themes coming out of the show were expected, and clear: successfully bridging digital and physical worlds presents huge opportunity; net zero must be prioritised but challenges remain; and, fundamental to both of these things, access to the right talent and skills is still a threat to the future of key productivity sectors.
Matt Bradney, Director of Business Development for Prodrive Composites Ltd and Chair of the Composites UK Skills and Workforce Development Working Group, gave an inspiring short presentation on the Composites Engineering Forum stage on day 1 entitled ‘The Workforce Challenge’.
In it, he painted a clear picture that most in technical sectors can agree on; the demand for apprentices and skilled operators will continue to outstrip supply if we don’t do more to bring people into the workforce.
What is the issue?
Particularly true of many sectors represented at Advanced Engineering, perception is a big issue when it comes to promoting STEM careers. However, that is changing – slowly.
The most recent Deloitte and The Manufacturing Institute 2022 Manufacturing Perceptions Study shows that perceptions about manufacturing jobs are improving in the US, with 25% more people believing that said jobs are creative and innovative compared to the previous study in 2017.
The study also points out one critical influencer on peoples’ perceptions: the Covid-19 pandemic.
The effort manufacturers went to during the pandemic, pivoting operations to produce essential equipment and goods, and sustaining jobs, has left a lasting positive impression – with 61% of people saying their perception of the importance of US manufacturing has improved as a result of the pandemic.
The Covid-19 legacy
Although some may now be more aware of the importance of key skills like engineering and life sciences, that isn’t the only lasting legacy of Covid-19.
The most recent ONS coronavirus statistics suggest that long Covid symptoms are affecting the day-to-day activities of around 1.6 million people in the UK. This is translating to the workforce, where one in 20 people neither employed nor seeking paid work are thought to be suffering from long Covid.
It’s especially impacting those aged 50 to 64 years and 16 to 24 years, where economic inactivity due to long term sickness has been rising since mid-2021 (source: Employment in the UK October 2022 bulletin); in other words, those typically seeking trainee, graduate, and apprenticeship roles, and the very experienced.
That aforementioned aging workforce has also been seen as an issue; because of natural attrition through retirement and sickness, but also due to rapidly moving technology.
Digital technology in both manufacturing and engineering isn’t new, but it is infiltrating more areas of the supply chain than ever before while demanding increasingly advanced capabilities.
So, you can upskill an existing workforce, but there will be some areas that require training beyond what can be offered to everyone.
That brings us back round to the crux of the problem; there simply aren’t enough people training in the skills needed, and nor are there enough teachers to teach them.
The 2013 Professor John Perkins’ Review of Engineering Skills by the then Department for Business, Innovation, and Skills called for the government to focus on teacher recruitment, but the follow-up in 2019 found this hadn’t gotten any better.
It also found that the uptake of STEM subjects was still low despite efforts to promote them by a wider variety of public and private sector companies and campaigns; only around 5% of A Level students were studying physics (2019), for example.
When you consider this against the backdrop of geopolitical unrest reducing access to overseas talent and skills, you can see why competition to attract skilled workers is fierce.
It can be almost impossible for UK SMEs to attract people from this small talent pool when competing on salary, progression, culture, and benefits against large global companies with much deeper pockets.
So what can be done?
Certainly, for SMEs, more incentives to recruit apprentices or similar would no doubt be appreciated. But that’s only part of the story.
The Engineering UK 2020 Educational pathways into engineering report outlines the following areas that need to be improved:
Females and those from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds are vastly underrepresented among those progressing into engineering.
Digital inequality is an issue, as is representation.
- Curriculum presence
Though STEM subjects are part of our curriculum, there’s a shortage of teachers, resources, and STEM career guidance in schools.
Employers can do more to build links with their local schools and colleges to provide support and materials as well as work experience opportunities.
- Support influencers
Fewer than half of STEM secondary school teachers and under one-third of parents express confidence in giving engineering careers advice. Those who don’t have influencers from STEM backgrounds guiding them are of course disadvantaged here.
- Policy development
Educational reform has focused on STEM skills since the introduction of 2017s industrial strategy but it still needs work. Increasing apprenticeship standards have made training more expensive: estimates from the Learning and Work Institute suggest that the apprenticeship levy may not be enough to cover the training needed to deliver on these enhanced standards. New T Levels also face challenges, with some employers assuming technical, safety, and legal requirements make it difficult to take in students short-term to complete industry placements as requirements by T Levels.
- Collaboration and stories
Most industries have specific working groups now set up to help tackle some of the skills shortages and barriers to entry, but more can always be done.
Seek out your local networks – by industry, skill, or geography – and speak to others about their recruitment experiences; build resources for parents, schools, and other employers that help break down the perceptions or barriers; and share more about what you do and the people that help make it happen.
The onus here is not just on government, or industry, or educators, or parents – we can all do more to shape the future skills landscape, the question is – will you?
Share your stories
If you have a great innovation story to share, a star team member you want to highlight or a training success story that could inspire the next generation, email our team with the details and you could be featured here!