The UK’s pursuit of growth in manufacturing output, improvements in productivity, and implementation of automation and robotics is under threat due to the lack of suitably qualified and skilled engin
For a nation that has an impressive engineering heritage, in recent times we have consistently failed to invest in developing the diverse engineering skills that we need to support our manufacturing base.
In this article, William Bourn, UK Sales Manager for Güdel UK, explores the reasons behind the current situation, and considers the steps required to change the current mind-set and encourage greater numbers of students to consider becoming the engineers of tomorrow.
Historically, much of our skilled engineering resource was provided through the apprenticeship route. School leavers were encouraged to secure apprenticeships in a wide range of engineering disciplines, and indeed many were following a family tradition of joining the same firm and training in the same role as previous generations. This was considered a valued, respected career path.
For a small percentage of those with higher academic achievements, university was the alternative, attaining a degree before entering the world of manufacturing. With a very strong manufacturing sector, which at the time was highly labour intensive, this balance of manual skills and degree level education worked well.
However, as our manufacturing base started to decline, the vast majority of companies cut back or even cancelled their apprenticeship programmes. At around the same time, the Engineering Industrial Training Board (EITB), which offered partially funded first year engineering training, ceased to exist, further restricting the opportunities for engineering apprenticeships.
As manufacturing of all types within the UK continued to decline or move offshore, our skill base contracted still further, with many fewer young engineers available to replace those either retiring, or leaving the industry.
Fast forward to today, and we see the consequences of past policies and events. Practically all school leavers are actively encouraged to enter further education, and then to move on to university to obtain degree level qualifications. Statistics, obtained from the House of Commons Library, show that overall participation in higher education increased from around 3.4% in the1950’s, to almost 50% today. Looking at these figures there is little doubt that university education has now become an industry in itself, with statistics from Universities UK showing a total income for the year 2016-2017 as £35.7 billion.
In principle it is hard to argue with the concept of a university education, as individuals should be encouraged to develop. However, we now have vast numbers of graduates, many with significant debt, who struggle to find employment opportunities that match their degree qualifications. In part this is due to many degrees having little or no vocational relevance, and partly because there are simply not enough graduate level jobs in the economy for the number of students completing their course.
Within this scenario, somehow over the last few years, interest in, and importantly, respect for careers in engineering within the UK has declined. So even amongst this increasing number of degree-educated individuals there are still too few pursuing engineering. We could also debate that even of those who do, many are not suitably educated for the roles which manufacturing is struggling to fill. We cannot get away from the fact that we need a huge number of bright, practically trained and enthusiastic people to sustain our manufacturing industry.
Our educational system must ensure that the profile and status of vocational courses and engineering apprenticeships is once again raised to a level where they are seen as respected and valued opportunities, not a “second best” option for those who do not wish to go to university or who perhaps do not have the academic qualifications required for entry. UK industry needs, and will continue to need, individuals who are both skilled and educated, if we are to make the most of the latest technologies available to us within our manufacturing sectors. Whilst the university degree courses will produce engineers with high-level academic qualifications, we must also address the lack of hand’s on practical skills being taught today.
At the same time as the numbers of graduates continues to increase, the number of apprenticeships on offer has fallen. The higher education colleges which support them remain significantly underfunded, and the recent government attempts to drive up the number of apprenticeships, with levies on larger companies, are failing to increase the number of apprentices coming through the system, although it is a subject which is regularly in the news.
The practical skills we urgently require are developed through the apprenticeship route and supported by further education colleges. To succeed, there needs to be a reversal of the underfunding for these establishments. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), further education has been hard hit, with an 8% cut in real terms since 2010/2011.
It’s true of course that the UK is still training apprentices, at three different qualification levels: intermediate, advanced and higher. However, in recent years the numbers continue to fall. Overall there were 119,100 fewer starts in 2017/18 than in 2016/17. Starts at intermediate level and by apprentices aged 25 and over were particularly affected. This means that 94,000 fewer people were participating in an apprenticeship in 2017/18 than in 2016/17, a significant drop. We must also remember that not all of these apprenticeships were in engineering disciplines. According to a Government Briefing Paper in February 2019, the Numbers of Apprenticeships in England, within Engineering and Manufacturing Technologies, for the period 2017 / 2018, represented a total of 59,000 – just 16% of the total number of apprenticeship starts, and down by 16,000 from 2016/17.
Perhaps the UK needs to consider an alternative approach to apprenticeships, where continued investment in both vocational training programmes and university education ensures a ready supply of suitably qualified personnel. For example, German schools are the foundation for the future of the country’s engineers, as they support the philosophy of encouraging students into manufacturing and engineering. This apprenticeship system is still the envy of Europe, with some 2/3rd of young Germans taking up apprenticeships, across a wide variety of disciplines, following full time education.
Respected vocational training programmes are still commonplace within many German industry sectors, where they are still seen by many as a rite of passage – learning skills, responsibility and a professional work ethic at an early age which will go on to serve them well throughout their life. These modern apprenticeships combine academic skills with on-the-job experience, providing the skill base needed to support the technology focused German economy. As manufacturing becomes ever more sophisticated, the UK requires greater numbers of well-rounded engineers in all of our manufacturing sectors, including the robot and automation industry. In addition to the highly qualified technology developers, design engineers and robot programmers, the industry really needs the engineers who have the practical skills and experience required to build, apply and maintain our modern manufacturing technologies to best effect.
Also, apprenticeships should not be seen as the sole domain of large companies. Although part of a multi-national group, Güdel UK, a subsidiary of its Swiss based parent, is a relatively small organisation, however 16% of the company’s employees are apprentices, training in technical and commercial roles. As the business continues to grow, there will always be opportunities for additional apprentices. As the UK moves into somewhat uncharted territory in the coming months and years, there is little doubt that manufacturing will remain a crucial part of our economy. If the UK is to grow its manufacturing base, it also needs to ensure that it is growing the talent and skills needed to secure our future.