13 March 2012
Stepping up to the Mark
Manufacturers say the job market is saturated with a generation of the illiterate and unemployable. So what's Mark Prisk, the man behind future industry policy, going to do about it? The WM Leaders Forum – our think-tank for the sector – takes the minister to task. Max Gosney reports
Youth unemployment has just hit 1.04 million, yet every manufacturer in the room is looking to hire.
"Extraordinary," acknowledges Mark Prisk, manufacturing minister and special guest at the WM Leaders Forum, as site owners bemoan their two-year quests for suitably skilled juniors. "I don't often meet a group of businesses where every one is recruiting at this moment in time," Prisk adds.
"On the question of core skills, what are the specific problems that you're facing with youngsters?" Manufacturers of products spanning concrete paving, electro-pneumatic control systems and bikes vie to voice a common list of complaints.
David Fox, CEO of PP Electrical Systems, is fastest off the mark. "They don't know how to speak to you: they don't know how to communicate and they have no understanding of teamwork," he says. The problem stems from a school system alienated from the needs of business, Fox adds. "One of the fundamental problems is that the KPIs for school success rates are flawed. What we ought to be measuring is whether people are employable."
Chris Mulvihill, director of EMS Manufacturing, echoes this point. "We find exactly the same problem. We're not talking about high level skills gaps; we're talking about lack of basic literacy and numeracy. It's a really scary prospect that after a full bout of state education we have young people who can barely read or write."
Prisk is quick to empathise... quicker still to pass the buck. "I agree with you," he says. "The government as a whole takes a view that we have inherited a real problem here. As a country, we have neglected that generation which is coming through – [they're] poor in maths, not that articulate, perhaps believing things are easier to achieve than they really are."
The coalition government's remedy is to instil a fourth 'R' back into classrooms, the minister explains. "It's about rigour. We have inherited an education system which has been allowed to promote the idea that everyone is going to be the same and is going to win. What it should be doing is saying 'what's your best?' and helping students achieve that."
Education minister Michael Gove will lead the crusade for cultural change as part of his national curriculum review, says Prisk. Meanwhile the government will push ahead with University Technical Colleges (UTCs), specialist schools for kids with prowess in practical skills. Prisk adds: "From 14, those youngsters who may not be the strongest academically will still do their basics, their English and maths, but will start getting their hands dirty doing problem solving and engineering work."
However, with fewer than 20 UTCs on the cards, the yield of bright young things is going to be slight. A recent decision to downgrade the educational value of the Engineering Diploma from five GCSEs to one has also tainted Westminster's pro-manufacturing message. But even if ministers promised a thousand UTCs, it might not necessarily solve the skills gap, according to the Leaders Forum.
Fox explains: "Most of what we do in this country is complex manufacturing and that means you can only teach people the skills they need within the business. The businesses that are most successful, like JCB or JLR, have their own in-house academies – a small company can't do that." However, size is no barrier to government aid, assures Prisk. SMEs can cash in on a £1,500 subsidy per apprentice, he stresses, and a £5 million government investment in Group Training Associations, which allow firms to pool resources and administrative duties.
The aid, while noteworthy, offers treatment rather than cure, the Leaders Forum counters. Incentives to take on more apprentices are worthless without a stock of talented candidates to pick from, delegates warn.
And achieving that influx is going to take a monumental PR makeover, says Colin Boughton of Fujifilm. "What can the government do to promote manufacturing? It's just not cool. I work for a Japanese company and back in Japan the standing of people involved in manufacturing is significantly higher."
Westminster's answer is the £1m-backed QE2 prize for engineering and a Make it in Great Britain campaign to tie in with the London 2012 Olympics. The latter will promote British manufacturing prowess at an exhibition this summer at the Science museum. However, Prisk is non-committal over whether the campaign will be advertised at the Olympic Games itself. "There are a whole series of rules around this," he responds.
Not to promote UK manufacturing seems a golden chance squandered: a TV audience of billions versus the thousands who may happen upon the Science museum exhibition. But it's perhaps fitting of a government whose constant wooing of industry can't hide serious commitment problems. "What's government going to do?" replies Prisk, when pushed to declare his hand. "Well government has a job, but with you. If people are going to come into this [sector], then you're the best people to persuade them."
Agreed – as long as you can lend us the national broadcaster to amplify our message, comes the reply. Mulvihill says: "This is a very tongue-in-cheek comment, but we still have a state broadcaster. I'd be very happy to see it issuing some positive manufacturing propaganda." Prisk admits his own frustration over some persistent negative coverage from the BBC, but declined to declare war on Television Centre (or Media City). "It is not state owned as much as we all pay for it individually," he says. "Would I like to see more positive messages about manufacturing on the BBC? You bet I would."
And if Robert Peston et al do want a positive news lead, then Prisk has some starters for ten. "The Automotive Council is something the French and Germans would give their eye teeth for," he says. "I get lots of enquiries from my opposite numbers about this because we've got it right." The model sees OEMs teaming up with smaller supply chain partners to coordinate skills training, technologies and R&D behind a common goal. "I want industry-led sector plans," Prisk explains. "We've focused on having sector by sector strategies because having a grand plan is a bit remote for my liking."
The coalition is cast as the eternal pragmatist, preferring flexible assistance to formulaic, top-down intervention. "It has to be an industry-led plan because if it's government wishing it up or consulting politely, it rarely works," stresses Prisk. Westminster will bring some core cross-industry incentives to the party, the minister points out, highlighting key drivers for growth as the £2.4bn Regional Growth Fund, Technology and Innovation Centres and the government's commitment to keep the cost of borrowing low.
It leaves UK manufacturing in the guise of that grand old Conservative institution, the grammar school. The market will favour the go-getters – the manufacturers with the tenacity and talent to succeed. Those who are less assured, the firms that need more intensive nurturing and support to realise their potential, are set for a more uncertain future.
The dynamic may just deliver the new wave of British-based world beaters. But its selective nature is sure to mean that the group grows increasingly elite.
Leaders Forum verdict
WM asked our Leaders Forum members to give us their verdict on Mark Prisk and his message about the importance of UK manufacturing. Here's how our panel saw it:
David Fox, CEO, PP Electrical Systems
"As much as I enjoyed our lunch and discussion with Mark, I was left with the feeling that not much has changed.
"What we need is much more positive publicity, much more support in spreading the word about the value provided by manufacturing. Above all, we need the media to spread a more positive message – maybe government could influence this.
"I do believe the mist is slowly clearing and the government intends to provide support. However it's going to take an awfully long time to realise the necessary culture change to make our nation's workforce sufficiently skilled that it can improve our standing on the world stage – especially while we use 20-year-old teaching methods.
"Mark is a very genuine and sincere gentleman who is doing his very best for our country, but he can't do it on his own. Manufacturers need to step up to the plate and do what is right for their businesses and the sector." Rating: 6/10.
Adrian Roberts, HR director, Schaeffler
"I was generally pleased to hear what Mark Prisk had to say. He appeared keen to listen to our views and explained the government's thinking and proposals which were broadly in line with these.
"It is re-assuring that the government appears, at least from the dialogue that we have heard so far, to want to support and grow the UK's manufacturing base. This is contrary to many previous administrations that have believed that the UK's future is in the service sector.
"I just hope the government is true to its word and meaningful actions and policies are put in place to assist growth in manufacturing and engineering. The words were good now let's see the actions." Rating: 8/10
Leaders Forum: plea for parliamentary skills debate
The WM Leaders Forum members have urged Mark Prisk to air their concerns over skills shortages in parliament. You can add your backing to the memorandum by emailing messages of support to firstname.lastname@example.org or signing the online petition at www.worksmanagement.co.uk
We were delighted to hear, at the WM Leaders Forum, how keenly you value British manufacturing and our importance in driving economic growth.
However, we remain deeply concerned that a dramatic shortfall in core skills could seriously threaten our ability to achieve this goal.
All of us, despite a hostile economic climate and rising unemployment, are looking to recruit – particularly at apprentice and junior level.
We can offer hugely rewarding careers within our businesses, but only to candidates who have the fundamental skills to meet the challenge. Such candidates remain in frustratingly short supply.
We have serious concerns that the education system is producing too many youngsters who lack basic literacy and numeracy skills, who are inarticulate and who display a poor work ethic. It's unfair and unsustainable to expect businesses like ours to carry the burden of bringing these candidates up to an acceptable standard.
We call on you to table a parliamentary debate via an early day motion to discuss how industry and government can work together to remedy this toxic shortage in core skills.
We look forward to hearing from you soon.
The WM Leaders Forum
Quotes of the day
"I will tell the Secretary of State I have come away from this meeting and everyone is looking – indeed struggling – to find the skilled engineers they need."
Mark Prisk, manufacturing minister
"It's a really scary prospect that after a full bout of state education, we have young people going into the world who can barely read or write their own names, and who wouldn't know if their payslips were right. If they can't do that, they're not going to be able to read measuring equipment... it's horrific."
Chris Mulvihill, director, EMS Manufacturing
"The abuse of the engineering title is killing us. You get the students excited in manufacturing then they go home and speak to their parents who warn them off because their only experience of engineering is with the person who fixes their washing machine. This is something the government must address."
Will Butler-Adams, MD, Brompton Bicycles
"Students make their choices quite rationally and you have seen a decline in the number of people employed in manufacturing. There's a big question in students' minds over whether they should commit a big proportion of their life and resources to equip themselves with the skills for an uncertain industry."
Adam Leaver, lecturer in financial innovation, Manchester Business School
"You will have to be brave enough to make skilled engineers equal to a graduate if we're really going to drive talent into manufacturing."
Bruce Farrar, works manager, Marshalls
"The financial services industry in London recruited virtually 100% of the engineering graduates from Imperial College. If a student can get £10,000 at an engineering company and £30,000 at a bank when they've got a mortgage or student debt, it's an easy decision."
Chris Nicholson, group MD, NIS Holdings
Brompton Bicycle Ltd
EMS Radio Fire & Security Systems Ltd
Marshalls Mono Ltd
PP Electrical Systems Ltd
Schaeffler (UK) Ltd
Schaeffler (UK) Ltd
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