The UK’s manufacturing sector has had cause for celebration recently after the revelation that UK MANUFACTURING output has increased at the fastest pace in almost two decades. While the country still has a way to go to reach pre-recession levels, the surge in output is a welcome surprise that shows the sector is finally heading in the right direction.
Continued growth is closely tied with the success of the rest of the UK’s economy, and the current boom comes at the same time as the fastest growth in retail sales for several years, as well as an encouraging lift in car sales.
That said, there is much manufacturers can be doing to make sure they are able to sustain this growth over the next few years. Among the most important factors is ensuring a steady stream of fresh talent, especially as the sector itself continues to evolve and demand a more diverse range of skills and talents.
There is much talk of a skills gap hitting the UK’s manufacturing sector in the next few years, but in fact it seems we may already be there. According to the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), more than a quarter of engineering and technology graduates are not currently employed in the sector. With around 50,000 higher education qualifications awarded in the sector per year, this represents a startlingly large amount of potential new manufacturing recruits that either can’t find work in the sector, or have decided to take their qualifications elsewhere. Eight per cent are unemployed.
At the same time, a report by the Social Market Foundation found that due to the UK’s aging workforce, around 100,000 jobs will arise every year that require degrees in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM). If this remains unchanged, the think-tank believes the UK will require 40,000 more graduates every year until the year 2020 – almost half as much again of the amount the country is currently producing.
This lack of STEM graduates is set to have an impact on a wide variety of sectors, but the manufacturing industry will be especially hard hit as it continues to evolve and technology plays an ever greater role. Within the factory a growing focus on automation presents a clear need for more skilled IT workers, and globalisation is also bringing greater demands as technology plays a vital role in keeping everything connected.
While STEM graduates are clearly fundamental for the future of manufacturing, the industry must not overlook the need for entry level workers. One of the sector’s greatest strengths is that it has always been possible for an entry level employee to gain new skills and work their way up the chain to an experienced, senior position. Likewise, with non-traditional skills like communication becoming more important, there are even more opportunities for people outside of traditional engineering and technology backgrounds. Around a million young people in the UK are still classified as NEET (not in education, employment or training). The manufacturing industry should be doing everything possible to engage this major potential workforce, particularly at such a crucial time of economic instability and severe domestic unemployment.
With so many engineering and technology graduates not finding work in their field, more needs to be done to promote just what an exciting and fast-paced opportunity a career in manufacturing represents. By making it clear that the industry fosters innovation and offers a great deal of opportunity for advancement, manufacturers can not only attract newly qualified graduates, but inspire a whole new generation of young people to study STEM topics, provide the workforce boost that the UK will so desperately needs, and secure the next generation of UK manufacturing’s future leaders.