18 August 2012
Skills, thrills and bellyaches
Boys and girls still aren't growing up wanting to be engineers, the Siemens VIP panel debate in Manchester heard. Vince Cable joined a group of industry leaders to discuss why. Max Gosney reports
The build up was all about a panel comprising Vince Cable, leading industrialists and a former Tomorrow's World TV star. Yet it was a previously unknown undergraduate who stole the show at the VIP 'Make it in Great Britain' panel debate at Siemens' Answers for Industry Conference in Manchester last month.
Twenty-two-year-old Louise Anderson astounded Cable et al with a rousing critique of the classroom flaws condemning manufacturing to second rate status among generation Y. "For me personally, manufacturing wasn't an option," she told an audience of more than 200 manufacturing leaders. "There's a real lack of awareness of what it is and the variety of jobs. When you think of manufacturing, you think of male and engineering. There are a lot of stereotypes to be overcome."
Serendipity had intervened to help Anderson secure a place on Vauxhall's graduate scheme at its Ellesmere Port factory, the audience heard. "This type of job wasn't really an option. I went to a grammar school that was quite pushy, they wanted us to go into law or the City. Manufacturing doesn't have the same status... I found this by coincidence and I'm really grateful I've done it."
Familiar laments – but given fresh poignancy when voiced by someone so recently out of the schoolyard. Anderson added: "I would suggest to you the way forward is to reach people before they get to university, before GCSEs, before A-levels. Inspire them, educate them and just tell them what's involved." Vauxhall did just that, Anderson explained. Graduates visit local primary schools in a bid to convince kids there's more to life than supermarket stores and trading room floors. The campaign has helped convince 75% of students in the Cheshire area to reconsider manufacturing as a serious career choice, Anderson explained.
Skills in the spotlight
The undergraduate returned to her seat to rapturous applause. Just minutes into a debate on the UK's industrial future and the subject of skills was once again centre stage. "There are two very significant issues raised there," reflected Dame Nancy Rothwell, president and vice-chancellor, The University of Manchester. "One is making students and kids aware of what's involved in engineering and the second is gender. I'm sorry to say that very few females are going into engineering."
That could all change with a little imagination, said Emma Bridgewater, panellist and owner of the eponymous pottery manufacturer. "It's really, really very inspiring what you say. It's all about getting students of all ages to talk to each other about this. I'm passionately keen that every child at primary school should go to visit a factory."
The government's See Inside Manufacturing campaign takes students of a slightly older age bracket to factories. It's a worthy initiative, but one in need of revision if it's to be truly transformative, according to Anderson. "The schools tend to invite the select students, usually the male students who want to be an apprentice or an engineer. The schools are selecting students who already know what they want to do... We need to hit everybody and at a younger age."
However, our assessment of such schemes shouldn't be too downcast, concluded Juergen Maier, managing director of Siemens Industry sector, UK and Ireland. Campaigns like See Inside Manufacturing or the Big Bang Fair are never going to deliver instant remedies, he said. "We've just got to carry on doing all of this, then I think in 10 years' time if we keep going, we will have inspired young people into our exciting industry."
The plea for patience was echoed by Vince Cable. Manufacturing was well on the way to exorcising its PR demons, according to the business secretary. Now, he stressed, would be the wrong time to get the jitters again. "It will be a decade before the persuasive job we've done on teenagers, that going into industry is a good thing, results in more qualified engineers," said Cable. "It's a long process: we're making the right moves and getting through to a generation of young people."
Cable pointed to a 60% boost in apprenticeship numbers as evidence of attitude change. "Of course a large chunk of that isn't in manufacturing," accepted Cable. "But what we now have is significant dedicated funding for advanced manufacturing." University Technical Colleges are another vehicle for change, the business secretary added. This coalition initiative has established 34 exclusive schools for future engineering talent.
Trouble is telling
Cable's call for calm may come to be vindicated. But it offers little comfort to those in the midst of the skills storm. EEF chief Terry Scuoler commented: "We're still 8.5% down in terms of manufacturing output versus where we were in 2008. To hit that skills gap as early in the recovery as we did is somewhat telling."
Brompton Bicycle chief Will Butler-Adams revealed his four-year odyssey to find a design engineer. "There is a skills gap," reflected Butler-Adams, "but bigger than the skills gap is a monstrous inspiration gap. The people that are coming into our sector are not the cleverest, the boldest or the ballsiest." It was a point supported by fellow SME boss, Bridgewater. "I go and talk to graduates in Oxford and plead with them to ignore the merchant banks and come and take a chance on industry. They're very firm, they feel tremendously in debt and they desperately want to secure their pay packet and not take a risk."
Cable took the comments on the chin. "On the issue of the inspiration gap, there is a problem motivating young people to see a big long-term future in manufacturing," he responded. However, latest university admissions data showed the pendulum had begun to swing, the business secretary claimed. "Engineering is emerging as the most popular choice for young people. The idea that was going around five years ago that you don't bother with these things and you go into the City to make lots of money... I think that's changed."
The exchange brought to mind a group of mariners lost at sea. Captain Cable of the good ship UK manufacturing resolute that land is just over the horizon, while some of the crew grumble about sailing around in circles.
The debate then moved on to matters of innovation, access to funding and R&D.
The sentiment was best summed up by Maier, who praised the competitiveness of UK across all areas before hankering for something truly unmissable about manufacturing on domestic shores: "Is there something here that's world class – either technology, research and development, or skills – that we can't find anywhere else in the world?" pondered Maier."We have pockets of great things; Vince alluded to some of those. But, on a worldwide stage, what are the things that people will come to the UK for?"
Offshore marine energy and graphene development might be two, added Maier. The UK should do more to shout about such world-leading technology, according to the Siemens chief. The government's role was one of support, providing prolonged industry-friendly policy, he stressed.
The rest, Maier concluded, was up to UK manufacturing. "The one thing I'm particularly passionate about is that we, as an industry, invest more in R&D, skills and technology. It's true some of our competitor nations invest a lot more... Together we need to work at this a lot harder. I think if we do, given that we've got good factories here already, our factories can and will be much better than others in Germany or China."
VIP panel views
"It's incredibly difficult to get some large UK companies to even take an interest in the innovations and discoveries that come out of university."
Dame Nancy Rothwell, president and vice-chancellor, The University of Manchester
"There are some very positive things happening. The image of manufacturing has changed over the last few years. Government has got the message and is very supportive; the media has got the message."
Terry Scuoler, chief executive, EEF
"Talent is still going to where the money seems to be, which is the City or law... Most of my friends still think I'm a bit of a hobbit."
Emma Bridgewater, owner of Emma Bridgewater pottery
"Over the last decade or so, we got into a position where we were over-dependent on consumer spending, too dependent on the property market, too dependent on the City of London... The vision of the future is there has to be a basic rebalancing. My vision is of a country that's very knowledge based, because there's no other way to make a living."
Vince Cable, business secretary
"Let's send Louise out to go and get her message out."
Kate Bellingham, debate chair and former Tomorrow's World presenter, on attracting more youngsters into manufacturing careers
"We dance around this subject, when to me it seems obvious. Why don't you just legislate, Vince?"
Will Butler-Adams, MD at Brompton Bicycle, lobbies for the term 'engineer' to be defined and awarded special status
"The equivalent German manufacturing sector invests 30% more in automation. I don't have the statistic for apprenticeships or skills, but I'm pretty sure they invest more in that, too... What is it that we, as a manufacturing nation, are going to do to deliver a bit more confidence and invest more?"
Juergen Maier, managing director of Siemens Industry sector, UK and Ireland
Siemens Industry Ltd
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