Industry should stop complaining about skill shortages and start doing something about it, says Matthew Aldridge.
There seems to be a perpetual skills crisis in the engineering and manufacturing sector. Not enough students take scientific subjects such as physics and chemistry at school, which results in a dearth of graduates with technical degrees. Industry then moans about a lack of supply of qualified people. Ad infinitum.
But the truth is that companies need to be more proactive when it comes to addressing the skills crisis. It’s not enough to sit back and expect academic institutions to supply the numbers of new recruits that are needed. Industrial organisations must be more imaginative when it comes to recruiting, developing and retaining staff.
That’s a responsibility which should be shared across the engineering and manufacturing sector – whatever the size of the company. Small to medium-sized enterprises might have lower training and development budgets, but it’s crucial that they remain committed to ensuring that employees feel supported in their roles.
A good starting point is the setting up of an apprenticeship scheme. This is a good means of encouraging the next generation of technical talent. It’s also an effective method of introducing fresh ideas and thinking within an organisation, as young people often carry a new sense of perspective.
Small to medium-sized enterprises might have lower training and development budgets, but it’s crucial that they remain committed to ensuring that employees feel supported in their roles.
Companies also need to be more creative when it comes to finding new recruits. Ex-forces personnel, for instance, provide a rich seam of talent that often goes untapped. Those from a military background come with a host of valuable technical skills which are transferrable to an industrial setting.
In my experience, ex-forces personnel are usually well turned out, and have other important attributes such as good time keeping. But above all they have a great ability to develop rapport with colleagues and customers.
But getting new recruits into an organisation is only part of the answer – you have to keep hold of them, too. Training is key to retention success and it’s crucial that staff keep learning. Companies should look to ensure that all staff receive an agreed level of external training per year, while supporting workers who want to commit to career development through study at organisations such as the Open University.
The final piece in the skills jigsaw is working with local schools to encourage young people to consider a career in engineering. There are a host of schemes out there that encourage companies to support those with a passion for engineering – whether they are a high school or college student or at university.
Support can range from supplying free product samples, catalogues and flyers; or going into schools and colleges and giving presentations, or supporting on student research projects.
One great event is Formula Student, a fantastic motorsport competition which is organised annually by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers. Formula Student attracts teams of university students from around the world, challenging them to design, build and race a single seat racing car. The teams all need support from industry – in the form of parts and technical guidance – to get them to the starting line.
Formula Student is a hugely-respected contest that had a track record of encouraging the engineering talent of the future. By getting involved, companies are helping to build skills and foster enthusiasm, while also forging links with some of the brightest young engineers in the world.
Ultimately, the challenge of skill shortages can only be met through industry and academia working together. And companies of all size must play an active part in that combined effort.
About the author
Matthew Aldridge is director of igus UK, the leading manufacturer of energy chains and polymer bearings.