Skills gap holds back careers in manufacturing

Recruitment, investment, exports: all up in manufacturing. But does the UK workforce have the skills to keep the sector expanding?

The manufacturing umbrella organisation EEF (take a look here) recently announced that orders and output at UK manufacturers are improving at a record rate, driven by demand from overseas. This has led to an increase in confidence, predictions of more growth later in the year, some moves towards investment – and more jobs (a 17 per cent rise in recruitment in the second quarter of 2010).

But – and you knew there was a but – there are three things you need to think about before hitching your career star to the manufacturing wagon.

Only temporary?

In a move mirrored in the US, many of the hires are temporary posts, reflecting firms’ uncertainty about the future. After all, you can always let temp and agency workers go.

No one knows what’s going to happen in 2011; as austerity measures really start to bite, the sector’s growth may slow down.

And lastly, although British manufacturing is thriving, it’s “at risk of collapse due to a severe shortage of skills”, according to the Royal Geographical Society. And this is because the UK’s manufacturers need high-tech workers to match their range of high-tech products.

World class

According to research by Professor John Bryson from the University of Birmingham’s School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences, the industry produces more now in equivalent value of products than it did in 1966 – the peak year for manufacturing employment in the UK.  The companies that are now the bedrock of British industry have transformed their businesses to produce information-rich, design-intensive and high-value products.

The trouble, according to Professor Bryson, is that neither policy makers, government, nor school leavers understand this. So there won’t be enough skilled operatives entering the ageing workforce – Semta, the sector skills council for manufacturing, estimates that the country needs tens of thousands more new workers at this level. The sector also need managers and technical staff and this is where you, the readers, come in – but you need a workforce to manage in the first place.

Bottom of the class

Successful firms, says Professor Bryson, are now concerned about the lack of high-tech skills in the labour market and some are even worried that their businesses may not survive into the next decade due to their inability to recruit employees with the right expertise.

“The skills shortage facing British manufacturing poses a huge threat to its continued survival and competitiveness.  It will be extremely difficult for firms to grow and in some cases even continue as companies will find it increasingly difficult to recruit commercially-aware engineers and other forms of skilled labour,” Professor Bryson explained.

Professor Bryson estimates that there will be approximately 90,000 hard-to-fill manufacturing jobs in the West Midlands alone over the next five years and that education is the key to unlocking this problem.

“The UK does not place an emphasis on this particular type of expertise and it is not promoted as a long-term career option as it is seen as low-skilled.  The firms that need the skilled labour do not have the capacity to offer training as they are largely small and medium businesses (SMEs).”

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