Manufacturers discuss skills shortage issues

IN: Industry news

‘Make it British’ founder Kate Hills and Chris Daniels of Hybrid Air Vehicles share their thoughts on the support needed to help manufacturers overcome skills shortages.

undefinedLast month, Aldermore attended the EEF’s ‘Manufacturing a Renaissance’ conference, and though manufacturers expressed confidence for the sector’s future, skills gaps emerged as a major barrier to growth, leading the organisation to publish a 2015 Skills Manifesto.

In order to explore the issue further, Aldermore has invited two manufacturing experts to comment on their own experiences and what needs to be done to attract skilled employees into the industry.

Kate Hills, founder of Make it British

After a career sourcing garments for the UK fashion sector, Kate Hills set up ‘Make it British’ to champion the virtues of UK manufacturing. Through her experience running Meet the Manufacturer textiles events, she has come to believe skills shortages are the main barrier to growth in UK textiles.

“There is a huge demand, a massively increased demand, both from at home and abroad, but a lot of factories can’t grow any bigger, despite having a lot of money invested in them recently, because they can’t find the staff,” she begins.

Hills references the Alliance Report’s predictions on workforce growth in UK textiles, thanks to recent government funding:

“They think there will be a possibility to create 25,000 new jobs over the next few years within UK textile manufacturing, but the issue that is holding it back is attracting young people into the industry. One of the biggest problems that I hear from manufacturers is that they can create all these jobs but finding people to do them is difficult because there are very few skilled workers left to train everyone. We’ve got quite a small window of time really; over the last 20 years everyone has been leaving the industry so those few that are left are pretty much ready for retirement.”

Hills feels young people often fail to understand the important role manufacturing plays within the fashion industry:

“The sourcing director from Mulberry was quoted a few years ago saying that he thought the future leaders of the company would be apprentices that had started in their company from the factory floor, but young people don’t necessarily think about that. They’ll think of either working in design or in a shop for a retailer selling fashion, and they won’t actually think about all the jobs that you can do if you work in manufacturing. The most rewarding thing about manufacturing is actually making things and seeing something of quality being created.”

To combat this perception issue, Hills would like to see practical subjects back on the school curriculum from an early-stage, with more opportunities for students to work with real businesses.

“Schools need to start teaching how to make things, right from a primary school level – everything from woodworking to sewing, which seems to have disappeared from the curriculum.

Then colleges need to create courses that are more vocational and actually allow students time out in industries so they can spend some time in factories and see what it’s like,” she concludes.

Chris Daniels, Head of Partnerships and Communications at Hybrid Air Vehicles

Chris Daniels is Head of Partnerships and Communications at Hybrid Air Vehicles, the SME behind innovative hybrid aircrafts which offer environmental, safety and operational benefits over traditional air transport. The pioneering company was recently awarded a multi-million pound grant from the government’s Regional Growth Fund, fuelling its ambitious expansion plans.

“At the moment we’re at 35 employees but we’re committed to be at 80 by the end of the year, and that’s a proper commitment as we have the government grant to grow jobs,” Daniels reports. “We haven’t yet had problems with skills shortages but we know that we’re going to.”

For Daniels, Hybrid Air Vehicles’ extraordinary products are both an advantage and a disadvantage when it comes to hiring.

“In many ways we’re lucky because we’re an inspirational product that’s a lot more high-profile than most other SMEs, so we attract more people. But I think we’re acutely aware of where the skills are coming from, because we need very good people as we’re doing something so innovative.”

He acknowledges that manufacturing has suffered a ‘brain drain’ effect as salaries have become more divergent across different industries.

“I think the pay differential is a massive factor. Most professional jobs used to pay pretty similar rates within a range. I feel now that pay is massively prejudiced against engineering. You can go and do management consultancy or law and you will get paid an awful lot more than in engineering.  I think it’s a tragedy that the cream of our technical graduates go off into consultancy, but that’s what they do because they get paid more and these industries need the same technical skills.”

Daniels references teaching as an example where government grants for new starters have brought talented young people into the sector, suggesting a similar system for STEM skills.

“We need teachers to produce the engineers but the engineers are ultimately the people who are going to pay for the teachers. Unless you’re exporting something, your economy is never going to create any money. We need to have a good manufacturing base to sell things to other countries to bring value-added money in.”

Hybrid Air Vehicles are nevertheless taking a proactive approach to addressing skills shortages, through apprenticeships and outreach programs.

“We’re doing a STEM outreach program to inspire people, and we think as an offshoot of that a lot of people will come into our organisation. We’re also going to an apprentice hiring event at Bedford College. We’re looking at two or three apprentices, but we’re new to it and although we’ve had help from our local enterprise partnership, it’s quite difficult to set up a proper apprenticeship scheme from scratch.”

Again, Daniels feels the government could do more to encourage young people and small businesses to consider apprenticeships.

“Support for employers, particularly SMEs, to set up and run apprenticeship programs would be very useful. Because we’re a small to medium sized enterprise, we’re more volatile as an employer; we might be ten times as big in three years and as an apprentice you roll into quite an important job, but it might not happen. It’s a struggle that government could potentially do something about to provide a safety net for apprentice schemes, where if the company can’t sustain people then there’s a collective apprentice scheme that allows them to go somewhere else.”

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