Roundtable report: addressing industry's changing skills requirements

10 min read

At a recent roundtable event, experts from industry, academia and the UK skills community discussed the challenges of meeting manufacturing's changing skills requirements. Jon Excell and Andrew Wade report. 

The UK engineering skills shortage is hardly a recent phenomenon. For decades now industry bodies, institutes, and engineering organisations large and small, have raised regular concerns over the quality and quantity of new engineers entering the profession.

But in recent years, as industry’s digital transformation has gathered pace, and a host of new technologies have reshaped the role of the engineer, these challenges have become increasingly acute and complex.

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Against a backdrop of rapid and profound technological change, today’s engineering employers must ensure that they have the right skills onboard to fully embrace current technological advances; that they are set up to anticipate and respond to changing skills requirements; that they are doing their bit to shore up the future pipeline of skilled engineers; and that – in the race to tap into emerging areas of expertise - they don’t lose sight of the traditional engineering skills that are still essential.

Earlier his year (February 2020) The Engineer, in partnership with electronic component supplier RS Components, brought together a panel of experts from across industry to identify and discuss these changing skills requirements and explore some of the ways in which engineering organisations can address these challenges.

As the following report illustrates, meeting this challenge requires action on many fronts: from ensuring that engineers in the middle of their careers aren’t left behind, right through to inspiring, engaging and educating the school children who will become the engineers of tomorrow.

Meet the panellists

Richard Jeffers - Technical Director,  RS Northern Europe

James Howarth - Head of Education Strategy, RS EMEA

Kenan Griffith - Area operations manager, Southern Water

Louise Cowling - Head of degree Apprenticeships, AMRC training Centre

Sarah Dhanda - Head of Strategic Partnerships, Enginuity

Prof Carl Perrin – Director, Institute for Advanced Manufacturing and Engineering

Dr Hilary Leevers – CEO, Engineering UK

The changing skills landscape

Kicking off the discussion, RS Components’ Head of Education Strategy James Howarth gave a pithy assessment of the challenging climate facing engineering employers. “There’s a shortage of engineers coming through the system with the skills to meet the demands of a changing industry,” he explained, “and those demands are being driven by changes in innovation and technology. The onset of industry 4.0, AI and robotics are all having an impact. We’ve got an existing workforce that is somewhat slow to adapt to those changes and an existing education system that’s not providing our young people with the skills they need to meet those demands – it’s really important that we are looking to upskill our existing workforce but also prepare the engineers of the future and tomorrow to make sure we have that pipeline of talent coming through.”

RS Components’ Head of Education Strategy James Howarth

Other panellists shared this view. Indeed Sarah Dhanda, head of strategic partnerships at employer-led skills body Enginuity (formerly Semta), explained that the changing nature of engineering skills requirements had been a key factor in her organisation’s relaunch with a renewed focus on helping employers find Industry 4.0 skills. Meanwhile, AMRC’s head of degree apprenticeships, Louise Cowling pointed to a sea-change in the types of engineers that are now required. “10 years ago the requirement was for mechanical, electrical and design engineers,” she said.  “The requirement now is for a deeper focus on software engineering: software engineers, games developers and advanced integration engineers – skilled engineers who understand the digital links through manufacturing systems rather than pure control system engineers.”

Upskilling is at least as important as feeding the pipeline

Prof Carl Perrin, director of the Institute for Advanced Manufacturing and Engineering, added that as a result of this, engineering is frequently having to compete with other sectors for the skills that it needs. “Computer scientists and mathematicians are needed across all businesses,” he said, “and that creates some challenges because there are not that many people!”

The continued importance of traditional skills

Whilst digital skills are clearly of growing importance, our panellists agreed that industry has to be careful not to neglect more traditional areas of expertise.

“There’s no shortcut to just doing the basics really well,” said RS Component’s Technical Director Richard Jeffers.  “There’s a danger in this world of digitisation of forgetting the fact that if you clean, inspect, lubricate and tighten a mechanical system, it won’t fail.  I think some of those underpinning principles are in danger of getting lost if you just focus purely on the digitisation bit as being the magic wand.”

changing skills requirements
Prof Carl Perrin, director of the Institute for Advanced Manufacturing and Engineering

Carl Perrin agreed. “If we’re going to be making cars, aeroplanes and engines we’re going to need people who know how to weld and form, and who understand metallurgy and the fundamentals,” he said. “What we need to look at is how these data science technologies can augment the productivity of those people.”

Southern Water’s area operations manager Kenan Griffith added that it’s critical that businesses take the time to join the gap between the high digital vision and what this actually means on a day-to-day level. He said that his own organisation is at the early stages of addressing this through a partnership with an automation firm  which is creating a training programme for new people and existing staff. “All sorts of sexy automation technology is coming in,” he said, “but what we need to understand to apply those sciences in practice is very tricky and we’re in the early stages of trying to solve it.”

Engineering UK CEO Dr Hillary Leevers said that based on what she’s seen in other sectors, clear communication is key to pulling together teams with the right blend of skills. “If I think of other sectors that have tried to bridge between an old established discipline and something new - e.g. neuroscience or education – establishing a common language is incredibly important to getting that working well,” she said.

changing skills requirements
Left to right: Louise Cowling - AMRC Training Centre; Dr Hilary Leevers - Engineering UK; Richard Jeffers - RS Components

The value of  project based learning

With the discussion turning to practical measures that training providers can take to ensure that skills requirements are being met, panellists agreed that project-based learning initiatives that give students and apprentices real-world engineering experience are of major value.

This is at the heart of the AMRC’s approach, said Louise Cowling, and has been key to producing apprentices who are engaged with the realities of manufacturing.  “If they’ve got to write about the health and safety system, for example, they’ve got to go and talk to somebody and find out what system they’ve got and why. They can’t just be passive and write about it in the abstract……it makes them integrate into an organisation more than they’d have to otherwise.”

AME, which is a joint collaboration between the University of Coventry and Unipart Manufacturing, has taken a similar approach said Carl Perrin. Set up to develop industry-ready graduates by giving them direct access to real-life engineering projects, AME - which recently won a coveted Queens Anniversary award - has proved extremely successful in this regard. All of its three waves of graduates have gone into industry jobs, and the centre is now set to double in size.

“We’re not just delivering training,” said Perrin, “we’re doing research and developing a business and a product out of that. I’ve seen us evolve from being a metal bashing business making exhaust pipes and now we’re making batteries for electric vehicles…the students are learning on those kind of projects.”

He added that this sort of training is also key to developing the softer skills that make someone useful to a company: “how to communicate, how to lead, how to get stuff done, understanding how a business works and the culture, how to present.”

changing skills requirements
Sarah Dhanda - Head of strategic partnerships, Enginuity

The panel agreed that replicating this approach more widely would have real value, and Sarah Dhanda pointed to a growing appetite at a policy level to learn from success stories like this: “We’re working with IfA (Institute for Apprenticeships) on a root review of engineering and manufacturing standards, and there’s a real opportunity to influence the institute and DfE,” she said. “They keep telling us they  want to hear from people who are delivering things, what’s working and what’s not working so that they’ve got the hard evidence to go back to ministers and policymakers to influence what engineering apprenticeships standards look like.”

Upskilling existing engineers

Whilst a constant injection of fresh talent is crucial to industry’s health, our panellists were united on the importance of ensuring that existing workers aren’t left behind. “We talk a lot about STEM, degrees and apprenticeships, which we should do,” said Carl Perrin. “But we’ve got to make the people who are already in those businesses still relevant and able to contribute. Upskilling and retraining and introducing a culture of lifelong learning is at least as important as feeding the pipeline”

Louise Cowling agreed, adding that this is arguably an even bigger challenge than ensuring that graduates and apprentices are up to speed. “We’re seeing people in their 30s or 40s, still with loads of time in front of them, suddenly faced with things that didn’t even exist in the language five years ago,” she said.  “It’s a big issue and that is where all customers are struggling.”

Louise Cowling - head of degree apprenticeships, AMRC Training Centre

Upskilling the so-called “neglected middle”, many of whom won’t perhaps embrace emerging technologies as readily as digital natives, sounds a daunting challenge. But Enginuity’s Dhanda stressed that dealing with this issue is not necessarily about turning everyone into an expert.  “I think people jump to a conclusion that everybody needs to be able to do software development, or be an expert in cybersecurity. For some people it’s just about helping them understand what the terms mean in a really-user friendly fashion.

“You’ve then got the middle layer,” she added, “which is the people whose jobs will change, that’s the real challenge, it’s relatively easy for people coming into the workforce because you’ve got apprenticeships. It’s your existing workforce, who prob have another 20 – 30 years left to work who actually need different stratas of knowledge and skills about data and the internet of things.”

Skills loss through retirement

Another facet of the modern skills challenge to rear its head in the discussion was the problem of expertise being lost as experienced engineers retire. Our panel agreed that finding effective ways of capturing and passing on these skills should form an important part of any organisation’s skills strategy.

Kenan Griffth said that one way his organisation has been addressing this is through creating opportunities for job sharing or part time working, that help keep engineers approaching retirement engaged for longer, and also provide opportunities for sharing skills. “It’s often been the case that you leave the business, and those skills that you have leave with you,” he said. “We’re deploying regularly now job shares, part-time working, to try and keep those skills in the business.”

Hilary Leevers added that it’s important that employers find ways of including these older workers in mentoring schemes so that they can pass on their knowledge to te next generations.

We need education pathways that are able to respond much more rapidly to changing skills needs

James Howarth agreed, but added that the flexibility to take part in these kind of schemes should be extended to all employees. “It’s not just about those coming up to retirement age,” he said.  “There needs to be more flexibility around employees in general, being able to go out and share some of their skills and experiences with other organisations, within education, within schools. We’re fortunate at RS that we have that flexibility – we’ve got something like over 200 STEM ambassadors – and the business gives us the freedom for those people to go out and talk to schools and be mentors. And I know that’s not the case with a lot of organisations.”

STEM/ Educating young people

Whilst much of the discussion focused on the immediate skills challenges faced by industry, our panel also touched on the importance of STEM outreach, and the ways in which all organisations can play a role in shoring up the future pipeline of engineers.

Interestingly, our panel agreed that whilst it’s important to educate young people about the changing nature of engineering, STEM outreach should avoid concentrating on digital skills at the expense of everything else. “There’s a perception of STEM that it’s predominantly leaning towards the technology elements and particularly around things like coding and the other elements of STEM can get forgotten,” said James Howarth. “In our outreach programmes we might have an element of coding but we’ll also get a six year old using power tools – it’s having that right blend and mix, picking up on those subjects that aren’t just digital.”

Taking a broader look at the role of STEM outreach, Hilary Leevers said that it’s important for everyone involved - whether they’re a skills body or an SME – to realise that it’s about investing in the common good. “Lots of organisations do their own STEM outreach but will also participate in large-scale group activities,” she said.  “And there’s a real sense of shared mission. It’s not just about making sure we have the direct recruits for our particular needs, it’s about investing in and growing the pool that we can draw from. The whole system around us also needs to function, so we can’t just think about our own needs.”

She added that her priorities at Engineering UK include ensuring that STEM outreach is widely available, and that the many STEM efforts out there work in a joined up fashion.  “It’s a very inconsistent picture. Some schools are all over STEM, and some just don’t do it at all. A lot of the outreach that we do is trying to get those schools to start thinking about it and the different careers that are available.”

“I don’t think the large number of (STEM organisations) needs to be a problem,” she added, “so long as they are coordinated and teachers can navigate them. We just need to be working together to increase their reach, target where they’re most likely to make a difference, and make sure they’re impacting young people in the right way.”

Kenan Griffith - area operations manager, Southern Water

Future skills

Another longer term priority discussed by our panel was the need for industry to think carefully about the skills that it might need in the future and to ensure that the training mechanisms in place are nimble enough to adapt to these changing requirements. Richard Jeffers recommended some studious crystal-ball gazing: “It’s really hard trying to figure out how you reinvent your business model in this space…if you’re in a leadership layer, you’ve got to be tracking things like the Gartner emerging technology reports, because you’ve got to be looking at the 5, 10, 20 year horizon.”

This also applies to apprenticeships said Sarah Dhanda: “You can’t design an apprenticeship standard and just imagine it will be stationary for five years. You’ve either got to have some flex in it - so that as technology changes, we can flex the standard - or you’ve got to have a much faster response, so if industry, educators and employers are demanding change, then we can change it without having to go through some laborious three-year process.”

“We need education pathways that are able to respond much more rapidly to changing skills needs,” agreed Hilary Leevers, who added that all of this needs to be fed right back down to the classroom.  “At the moment, the concern is that, actually, what’s being learned in schools is getting further away from what’s required at the end point,” she warned.

For RS components’ James Howarth, changing the way that we talk to young people about engineering will be key: “We have a bit of mantra when we go and talk to young people. We ask them what they want to do, not what they want to be. So it’s not thinking about certain careers or certain roles, it’s actually thinking about what am I good at, what do I like.

Undoubtedly, many non-traditional skills, some not even defined yet, will shape the engineering workplace of the future. However, as AMRC’s Louise Cowling reminded the panel, it’s not quite time to say goodbye to traditional engineering skills either. “Fabrication and welding is very traditional but there is still a need for it,” she said. “What we’re hearing from energy companies is that if we’re going to go to low-carbon we need more fabrication and welding.”

Skills checklist

  • It’s more difficult for smaller companies to engage on skills, but SMEs must embrace the challenge
  • Don’t think about skills as something separate – it needs to be a key part of overall business strategy
  • Think long term – getting the right people in is more important than short-term fixes
  • STEM outreach needs more joined-up thinking as well as better measurement of its impact
  • Try not to think of skills as a cost – there can be immediate benefits as well as longer-term gains
  • Create a culture where you reward curiosity, encouraging people to seek out their own learning
  • Listen to young people and observe how they interact with technology. They are your future workforce and customers