Advanced manufacturing: the skills challenge

9 July 2018


Written by Toby Jackson, NERC-funded CSaP policy intern (April-July 2018)

Becoming a world leader in Advanced Manufacturing is key to maintaining and increasing the UK's economic growth. The second session in CSaP's annual conference focussed on one of the key challenges to fulfilling this aim - the skills shortage.

You can listen to the recording here:

The chair of the session, Rosa Wilkinson, is the Communications Director for the High Value Manufacturing Catapult. The panelists were:

Keith Hodgkinson gave a general introduction to the topic, introducing the details of the Industrial Strategy and emphasising that the lack of highly skilled workers was a key limitation across the sector. He welcomed the new UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) organisation as a ground breaking mechanism to coordinate training across disciplines and industries. He also gave an overview of the recently published Made Smarter review, which highlights the opportunities arising from industrial digitilalisation.

Dr Barclay then took the stage to advocate for apprenticeships as an essential way to bridge the skills gap. She argued that we are currently too focussed on the academic route and vocational training is undervalued. Apprenticeships provide the experience which is so highly valued by employers, and there are numerous schemes through which apprentices can study for their degree part time, alongside their work. She introduced six success stories, apprentices who have completed or nearly completed their vocational training are now in a strong position with both qualification and years of experience under their belts.

Professor Minshall pointed out that we have clear technology readiness levels (a technology passes through the research phase, the development phase and then into production) but we have no equivalent for skills. Instead, we have multiple metrics by which skills are measured - years of experience in the field, level of qualification, and apprenticeship schemes. This lack of strategic planning is partly responsible for the current skills shortage in advanced manufacturing. Finally, he emphasised that new technologies are not single entities requiring a well defined skill, they generally involve multiple dimensions, such as measurement systems, material productions and quality assurance, all of which require specialist skills.

Amazingly, we had made it as far as 1pm and were getting near lunchtime without anyone mentioning the 'B' word, but that couldn't last. The questions focussed on the effect of Brexit on the UK's ability to recruit skilled workers from overseas. Professor Minshall was of the opinion that we should 'never waste a good crisis' - meaning that we should use Brexit as an opportunity to transform our education system so that it provided more of the skills needed in advanced manufacturing. This should involve programming as core part of education between the ages of 11-18 and throughout higher education.

Finally, the importance of creating wealth at the expense of planetary health was re-visited. In particular, the question of whether to mine valuable metals from deep sea thermal vents, delicate environments in which the first life on this planet evolved, in order to fuel our advanced manufacturing sector and secure the UK's place as a world leader in this field. Overall, it was a very interesting session which provided plenty of stimulating conversation topics for lunch.

Keith Hodgkinson

Department for Science, Innovation and Technology (DSIT)

Professor Tim Minshall

Institute for Manufacturing (IfM), University of Cambridge

Rosa Wilkinson

High Value Manufacturing Catapult