For the engineering sector to reduce its skills shortage, it needs to employ around 186,000 skilled recruits each year until 2024. As we mark 2019’s National Apprenticeships week, does the future of engineering lie in the next generation? Here, Mark Barfield outlines his own journey as an apprentice and how companies can help close the skills gap.
Having passed my A-Levels in 2000 with a desire to take a break from formal education, I undertook an apprenticeship at industrial manufacturing company, Siemens. This involved a further education course with five years of part-time study for a Bachelor of Engineering degree at Nottingham Trent University.
During my time as an apprentice, I saw and experienced many facets of engineering, from practicing hands-on skills such as welding and wiring, to refining my technical skills in the drawing office.
After graduating, I was promoted from a draughtsman to an engineer. Using my experience, I worked in various engineering roles before beginning my current position at Cressall. Now, as engineering manager, I head up a team of six engineers, whose main task is to design large scale industrial resistors for a range of applications.
Since my apprenticeship, it seems interest in the route is on the rise. A survey carried out by The Sutton Trust in 2018 revealed that 64 per cent of young people surveyed would be interested in doing an apprenticeship over studying a degree, compared to 55 per cent four years prior. However, forty per cent also said that their teachers had never discussed the idea of apprenticeships with them.
Apprenticeship schemes often carry the stigma of providing lower-quality career prospects than those achieved from studying a degree. This is perhaps why they aren’t promoted as much as traditional higher-education. However, this stereotype must be shattered if we are to drive interest into the industry.
Mind the gap
The scarcity of skilled engineers is no secret. While a pool of top talent exists, there is simply not enough supply to meet demand, and half of all the standard roles included in the Home Office’s shortage occupations list are in engineering or allied professions.
The skills shortage could have a specific impact on small and medium enterprises (SMEs), and the onus is on them to harness the talent pool by presenting opportunities to young people.
Currently, this isn’t always an easy task. The population of 15-19-year olds in the UK is predicted to fall from 3.7 million in 2014 to 3.5 million by the end of 2019. Although almost a quarter of UK manufacturing companies recruit graduates from outside the EU to help fill the gap, this solution is becoming increasingly less viable. With Brexit looming and borders tightening, it is equally essential that UK companies focus on nurturing home-grown talent as well as overseas.
New-school meets old-school
To a certain degree, younger talent will always inject a fresh level of enthusiasm that may not be as prevalent amongst those who have been in employment for a number of years. Although young people will always bring in additional skills, it is important that experienced employees have the opportunity to pass on their knowledge to the next generation.
Beyond plugging the skills gap, an effective apprenticeship scheme can facilitate development across the company. For example, improving resistor designs with computer aided technologies such as computational fluid dynamics (CFD) is just one way that our digitalised world uses technologies to upgrade previous equipment designs.
Such technology was simply not around when many experienced engineers started their working lives. At the same time, it is of equal importance that younger generations fully understand the designs that they are re-developing, which requires the expertise of those behind the originals.
Even highly experienced engineers are unlikely to understand all of a company’s products and designs without further training. For Cressall, bridging the knowledge of younger professionals, such as apprentices, with that of experienced engineers is essential to both our own continuous professional development and to tackling the skills gap.
Mark is engineering manager at power resistor manufacturer Cressall Resistors,