How to close the engineering skills gap

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Companies need to show more imagination when it comes to attracting new talent, says Matthew Aldridge, director of igus UK, the leading manufacturer of energy chains and polymer bearings.

The engineering and manufacturing sector has long suffered from crippling skill shortages, and the problem appears to be getting worse.

Statistics from trade body Engineering UK show that 182,000 people with engineering skills will be needed per year up to 2022. But to get anywhere near to meeting that requirement, we need to double from current levels the number of graduates entering the profession. That’s an enormous ask, by any standards.

There is a solution, though. And it depends on companies playing a much more proactive role in addressing the skills crisis than they do today. Too many organisations rest their laurels, expecting academic institutions to supply them with the numbers of new recruits that they need. This simply isn’t good enough: companies themselves must be more imaginative when it comes to recruiting, developing and retaining staff.

Seek out apprentices

As a starting point, every company should establish an apprenticeship scheme as a means of offering workplace training and employment opportunities to young people. Apprentices can be an invaluable addition to any organisation, bringing unbridled energy and enthusiasm. In my experience, they are quick and willing learners. And companies that embark on such schemes can feel a sense of pride in doing their bit to alleviate skills shortages.

Think of the armed forces

Companies also need to be more creative when it comes to finding new recruits. Ex-forces personnel, for instance, provide a rich stream of talent that often goes untapped. Those from a military background come with a host of valuable technical skills that are easily transferable to an industrial setting.

I’ve always found ex-forces personnel to be smart, punctual and well turned-out. But above all they are self-starters, and they have a great ability to develop rapport with both customers and colleagues alike.

There are a host of schemes out there that encourage companies to support those with a passion for engineering – whether they are a high school, college or university student.

There are several organisations, such as the Career Transition Partnership, which can provide employers with advice on hiring ex-military staff in roles such as engineering, logistics, project management, accounts, administration or general management. And getting matched with recruits is a simple and cost-effective process, whatever your company’s size.

Training is crucial

But getting new recruits into an organisation is only part of the answer – you have to keep hold of them, too. Training is key to retention success and it’s vital that staff are encouraged to keep learning. One means of encouraging personal development is to support staff through the Open University, so that they earn while they learn. It’s crucial that companies are supportive of such career development, as it means that as a nation we all get a more qualified pool of talent.

Businesses should also look to ensure that all staff receive a certain number of days of external training per year. This is an effective means of ensuring that workers keep up-to-date with the latest technologies and trends.

Work with academia

The final piece in the skills jigsaw is working with local schools to encourage young people to consider a career in engineering. There are a host of schemes out there that encourage companies to support those with a passion for engineering – whether they are a high school, college or university student.

Support can range from supplying free product samples, catalogues and flyers; or going into schools and colleges and giving presentations, or supporting student research projects.

There’s no point moaning about the shortage of skilled workers: industry has to do its bit to alleviate the problem.

Formula Student, for instance, is a fantastic motorsport competition that is organised annually by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers. It attracts teams of university students from around the world, challenging them to design, build and race a single seat racing car. The teams all require support from industry – in the form of parts and technical guidance – to get them to the starting line.

Formula Student is a hugely respected contest that had a track record of encouraging the engineering talent of the future. By getting involved, companies help to build skills and foster enthusiasm, while also forging links with some of the brightest young engineers in the world.

This is just one example of how companies can support students as they develop their careers. There are lots of other equally valuable initiatives out there. But companies have to be proactive – they have to make an effort to reach out and to get involved.

Building a brighter future

Ultimately, UK productivity will only improve if companies play an active role in attracting, training and retaining new talent. There’s no point moaning about the shortage of skilled workers: industry has to do its bit to alleviate the problem.


About Matthew Aldridge

matthew aldridge igus

Matthew Aldridge is a director of igus UK, the leading manufacturer of plastic bearings and chain systems. The company, which is based in Northampton, employs more than 100 staff. It is a strong believer in the value of apprenticeship schemes, and recruits from a wide range of backgrounds, including ex-military personnel. The company is strongly committed to career development, sponsoring staff who are keen to embark on additional studies through institutions such as the Open University.


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