Manufacturers hit hard in the UK’s chronic skills shortage

Rhys Handley
Monday, January 21, 2019

Whether it is warranted or not, Brexit, and its potential fallout, is now held up – in the media and in much of the public discourse – as the driver of whichever of the UK’s current ills is being discussed.

So, when the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) revealed at the start of the month that the manufacturing sector is facing its greatest skills shortage in 30 years, it was perhaps only natural to turn to Public Enemy Number One.

However, momentous as it may be, Brexit shouldn’t be allowed to obscure the fact that the UK is facing other, more systemic, difficulties that have nothing to do with the UK’s relationship with the EU and date back a good deal further than the referendum in June 2016.

In a survey that canvassed 6,000 manufacturing businesses across the country, collectively employing more than a million workers, the BCC found that, during the final quarter of 2018, 81% of manufacturers had trouble finding staff with the right qualifications and experience. BCC director general Adam Marshall points out that the hoo-ha surrounding Brexit is really not helping and that the government must focus on the economy and business landscape as well as other key issues. 

He says: “The UK economy is in stasis. While it’s not contracting, it’s not growing robustly either. 

“Throughout much of 2018, UK businesses were subjected to a barrage of political noise and drama. In this new year, the government must demonstrate that it is ready to act to turbo-charge business confidence.

“Brexit is hoovering up all of government’s attention and resources, but it’s far from the only cause of uncertainty. 

“Given the magnitude of the recruitment difficulties faced by firms clear across the UK, business concerns about the government’s recent blueprint for future immigration rules must be taken seriously – and companies must be able to access skills at all levels without heavy costs or bureaucracy.”

This skills deficit is not new. The Engineering Employers’ Federation (EEF) has kept a close eye on the needs of the firms it represents over the years. Currently, the proportion of vacancies in the sector it deems ‘hard-to-fill’ stands at 29%. This has barely shifted since 2013, when it stood at 30%.

EEF external affairs executive David Fagan says the body has identified a number of important factors: “From our own research, the first issue is the quality of candidates that are applying for roles. Over two-thirds of manufacturers say applicants lack technical skills.

“The second issue is the number of young people working in the industry. Currently 40% of manufacturers say 40% of their workforce is above the age of 50, and while they are keen to keep hold of these workers – who often possess specialist skills – there is a growing need to attract the next generation.

He does, however, point to a potential Brexit issue: “76% of manufacturers currently have at least one EU national working in their business, and on average EU nationals make up 11% of a manufacturer’s workforce. Any reduction in the availability of EU nationals will only make the skills shortage worse.”

Perhaps sensibly, there’s a notion that manufacturers should not wait for the government to provide clarity – something that seems to be receding ever further from sight every day – and take matters into their own hands and prevent a shortage from developing into a crisis.

The Recruitment and Employment Confederation (REC) has thrown its hat into the ring to help struggling employers with its Good Recruitment campaign. It enables companies to benchmark their recruitment methods, highlighting good practice and allowing them to take inspiration and reinvigorate their approaches to scoop up new skilled labourers.

REC director of campaigns Tom Hadley says: “Our data indicates that the shortage of skilled labour increases month on month – our members tell us that the number of candidates available on the job market is decreasing while their need is only going up.

“Previously, a high focus on STEM subjects led to an increase in employment and diversity in those sectors, so it would be good to work on the visibility of careers in manufacturing and highlight how good pay and progression can be in those jobs.

“If the UK cannot meet the skills requirements of international companies looking to move here, then they will just move somewhere else, so the stakes are quite high.” 

The printed word

Print is not unique in facing down this crisis, but its needs are as nuanced and specific as any other manufacturing industry. More so than most, print is an older man’s game.

For the BPIF, a push for more, better and more attractive apprenticeships and training schemes is key to nipping this problem in the bud.

“Print has a tradition of training, notably with apprenticeships, which provide great training pathways for the development of workers in the sector, and, are appealing to new entrants,” says BPIF chief executive Charles Jarrold and managing director of training Karly Lattimore in a joint statement.

“We need to work at correcting the perception of the sector, getting the message out that it is dynamic, creative and provides great careers. Apprenticeships have to play a key part in rectifying the shortage of skilled workers in the industry and ensuring that the industry is able to thrive and keep up with the challenges it faces.

“Businesses need to take a cold hard look at their needs now and into the future. We are in a changing world, predicting what that’s like is difficult, but one certainty remains – a skilled, trained, developed and well managed workforce, kept engaged and informed in the business, help all businesses be agile in addressing whatever that future holds.”


Employers must lead the way out of the skills crisis

gilliganMike Gilligan, director, Mercury Search & Selection

In line with many sectors, print employers are struggling to recruit candidates with the right qualifications, experience and track record. While Brexit is grabbing the headlines, it is clear the print sector’s issues are more about its fundamentals and the overall position of the economy, both at odds with mainstream media hysteria.

The UK economy has record employment levels, tightening up available talent. Looking specifically at the print sector, we have rapid development of new technology. This means as new technology is implemented, there is immediately a shortage of people trained to use it.

An early mistake in digital print was focusing on the efficiency aspect – doing the same things cheaper. It took a little while to shift the mindset into exploiting capability opportunities rather than cost. Print has become a victim of its own innovation and success, and the talent pool lags behind the technology.

Employers must invest in developing all staff in parallel to, if not ahead of, technological innovation. I’m a big fan of broad training in the style of traditional apprenticeships, but most employers want focused training to minimise cost. It’s a fallacy to think training and building skilled workforces is the government’s responsibility. The recent fetish with university degrees has done the industry and employees no favours as vocational training has been downplayed. 

Employers need to lead the drive to develop the required skills from the grassroots up. 

There are very good people out there ready for their next step. Often, they are successful and in relatively secure roles so not actively looking and will not respond to passive recruitment. We have great success in identifying them for our clients, highlighting the opportunities for them to take their next step. There is no sign this will change in the foreseeable future, whatever Brexit brings.


How has your compa ny reacted to the skills shortage?

mooreSimon Moore, managing director, Eclipse

“The consolidation of the print industry has meant that some skills have disappeared as people find employment elsewhere. So, when you try to recruit skilled operatives it becomes hard because the pool of people has shrunk. We used to be able to draw on skills in the local area, but we have fewer competitors now, so the skills are not there, and people are less willing to travel for work. We have been taking on apprentices and will continue to do that because we need to create a next generation as this industry becomes more mature.”

deadmanZoe Deadman, managing director, KCS Print

“We are located rurally, so we have to train staff in house. Getting people in the door is tricky. We used to feed people in from larger businesses in the area but that has become difficult because those companies are having troubles, which has had a knock-on effect on us. The fewer people that come over from Europe, the smaller that pool of talent will get. We have employees from eastern Europe and my concern is that manufacturing will not get dispensation in a points-based immigration system like an industry such as agriculture would.”

patelAsh Patel, managing director, Printvision

“It is difficult employing skilled labour in print because anyone who has the training will be coming in to work on different types of machines than they were used to at their previous job – there is always an element of training. You get a lot of people who talk big on their CVs but come in and do not have a clue, which is why we have applicants carry out a task to prove their skills before we make an offer. The number of skilled workers is falling but we are inundated with applications for jobs, most not worth considering.”

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