The Elephant in the Room – Skills Shortage within the Engineering Sector

Coming back from the West of England Aerospace Forum (www.weaf.co.uk) yesterday I was struck by a couple of issues that keep raising their ugly heads within the engineering & manufacturing sectors. The topic of the WEAF event was to discuss how the South West of England could position itself as a global powerhouse in the aerospace sector. This is not without merit – 14 of the 15 global prime manufacturers have their UK development and production centres in the South West. Key enterprise hubs made up of the 2nd and 3rd tier suppliers are forming in strategic locations in Bournemouth, Yeovil and Bristol and these high tech suppliers are becoming the heart of the value chain.

The argument is certainly compelling but then the issue of skills was raised and two fundamental challenges to the vision emerged. The first question - where is the next generation of engineers coming from? Presentations from two global manufacturers, each with workforces in excess of 10,000, highlighted that the annual intake of apprentices for each company was below 10. This is coupled with a dearth of recognised Engineering Centres of Excellence within the regional universities and a college system that neither has the resources nor the skilled staff to teach modern engineering techniques effectively. The result is a sector that does not appeal to the school kids of today and a lack of opportunities for those interested to even get a foot on the first rung of a career ladder in engineering.

But let’s look at potential solutions as opposed to ringing our hands over the problems. The main university in the region is rapidly gaining recognition as a national centre of excellence in 3D Animation and Digital Graphic Design. This has been fuelled by the growing (if unrealistic) aspiration of youngsters to enter the creative digital & gaming industries. Many of the skills being developed on these courses are of direct relevance to a manufacturing sector where experience of 3D modelling and simulation of the live environment are becoming critical in modern, competitive production processes.

In our own area – the development of learning resources for the engineering sector, gaming and VR technologies are playing an increasingly significant role in our portfolio of training solutions. What is more, they are making learning funky and fun – transforming the image of engineering training from dry, page turning e-learning courses to immersive and interactive problem based scenarios. So there is a responsibility on us – learning designers, to play our part in turning around the decline of a crucial sector. We constantly need to challenge our approach to the design of learning solutions and make sure our output is accessible, engaging and inspiring.

The second issue which is becoming the ever more visible elephant in the room is an impending haemorrhage of a skilled but aging workforce leaving the sector through retirement. Most manufacturing companies I work with estimate a loss of headcount though retirement over the next five years of at least 25%. None of them are recruiting at anything like the same levels as, traditionally, this has been a sector associated with low staff turnover. This presents a frightening prognosis for the manufacturing sector, particularly where there is a growing requirement to support legacy products with an extended in-service life.

Again we have a role to play in supporting organisations transition the knowledge of a skilled but aging workforce before they retire. The more enlightened organisations recognise this challenge and are implementing structured mentoring and buddy programmes. The clock is ticking, however, and if we are to truly add value, we have a duty of care to explore with our clients their preparedness for this ‘silver tsunami’.

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