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Changing young people's perception of manufacturing

Business bosses attending Barclays’ National Manufacturing Conference have proposed a range of solutions they feel are needed to help bridge the UK’s skills gap.


Influencing children at a younger age in primary school and a higher quality of work experience were just two of the ideas discussed in a debate chaired by Ray O’Donoghue, Barclays’ head of Midlands corporate banking.

 Other proposals included giving teachers more industry knowledge, improving the image of modern industry, and combining academic and vocational education to produce better-prepared workers for the engineering and manufacturing sectors.

More than 100 people who attended the conference at the Marches Centre of Manufacturing & Technology in Bridgnorth were told how a recent Barclays’ report into skills revealed just 6% of 16 to 23-year-olds were contemplating a future in industry.

In asking a panel of experts for their views, Mr O’Donoghue said: “It’s clear that there’s a mis-match between young people’s perceptions of manufacturing and the reality of what a great career the industrial sector can provide.”

Alan Lusty, chief executive of adi Group, an engineering firm based in the West Midlands, said his company was pioneering a pre-apprenticeship programme for 14-year-olds that saw children spending half a day a week in his factories for two years.

He said: “By 2021, adi Group alone will need to almost double its workforce which means finding up to 500 skilled apprentices, workers and potential engineers in the next three years.

“Our pre-apprenticeship programme working with North Bromsgrove High School saw the first 10 children graduate in 2017 and 50% of them are now working for adi Group as apprentices. The proven model is now in its third year and is something other companies can follow.”

Mr Lusty added that the best time to catch a child’s imagination is at the age of four or five and that the eventual aim of adi Group was to work with primary schools to influence younger children.

Frank Myers MBE, an engineer and business boss who is now chair of Herefordshire Business Board, agreed that the real need was to get to children “way before” they reached 14 because at that age many had “already decided” on career paths.

But he said: “Children struggle with some of the subjects they are taught because they don’t understand their relevance in the working world. Here in Herefordshire we want to start to influence schools’ curriculum designs by insisting on a ‘relevance’ comment for each subject.”

This led to a comment from the audience: “Most teachers are career educationalists with no experience of manufacturing, so why would they influence children in the classroom?”

Tim Thomas, director of employment and skills policy at the Engineering Employers Federation (EEF) said: “I would want all teachers to have experience in industry.”

He said that the EEF was trying to improve the outdated image of industry by using young apprentices and graduates at its events to explain why they are interested in manufacturing and engineering.

But he added: “We need to listen to our young people more about why industry is unattractive and changing those perceptions will take years.

“We need to make sure all primary school children know about design and engineering, and we need to showcase the technological aspects to show that we’re not grimy, not staid in the 1970s and that it’s an exciting place to be.”

Professor Phil Webb, head of the Centre for Structures, Assembly and Intelligent Automation at Cranfield University, said the “industrial carnage of the 1970s and 80s” had produced a generation of parents “scarred by that bad image” which didn’t help children’s career choices.

He said that the “demise in vocational education” for the industrial sector caused by the loss of polytechnics also meant there was a divide between industry and academia, and that reintegration was needed.

Prof Webb added: “There is more emphasis on this now because the realisation is there. It’s not perfect but the super tanker is just starting to turn around and I am optimistic about the future.”

Several comments from the audience criticised how industrial work experience for school children had been damaged because of the modern day needs of insurance and health and safety risk assessments.

Mr Myers MBE agreed and said there was not enough work experience because industry had been “scared away”. The answer, he said, was for industry to push back collectively. He added: “We should create a bank of approved, high quality industrial work experience.”

Mr O’Donoghue thanked the panel and said their ideas – and those suggested by the audience – could be brought together to help bridge the skills gap.

He added: “Transforming outdated perceptions of manufacturing isn’t an easy feat, but the potential gains that could come with a new wave of talent in the industry offer a tangible return on this investment.”

Matthew Snelson, Managing Director of the Marches Centre of Manufacturing & Technology, from reigning Shropshire company of the year Grainger & Worrall, added his support:

“The skills gap is an issue we all need to address, whether you are a young person, an employer, a school, college, university or even a member of the Government. We need to get the disengaged engaged and this starts with changing industry’s image.

“Manufacturing is robotics, it’s CAD/CAM systems, it’s precision CNC machines, it’s playing a role in making sure F1 cars get faster, aeroplanes are lighter, people can walk again – all played out in bright factories.”

“When young people, teachers and businesses visit MCMT there’s a wow factor, with over £4m spent on the latest CNC machines, metrology, robotics and automation. It’s this we need to harness.

“We are delighted that Barclays' National Manufacturing Conference convened at MCMT, where two of our apprentices spoke eloquently about how it has been the right decision to take the apprentice route rather than direct university entry, quoting both the hands-on experience gained and the financial benefits they have enjoyed.”

Pictured: The panel debate at the Marches Centre of Manufacuring and Technology in Bridgnorth. Photo: Rob Finney


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