Closing the materials skills gap

Materials World magazine
,
25 Sep 2012

Skill levels are dwindling and master manufacturers are ageing. So what is Wales to do? Dr David Warren reveals a scheme at Swansea University that is trying to change this.    

Materials considerations are frequently at the heart of engineering projects and manufacturing issues, yet the skills or knowledge within companies to address these issues can be limited. This was highlighted as a skills shortage in a UK Government White Paper in 2007. Combine this with an ever-ageing manufacturing workforce, and the importance of improving employees’ knowledge base is becoming increasingly important. In these difficult economic times, the ability to close this skills gap is becoming ever more difficult as belts are tightened on training budgets. Funding is now helping to address this skills shortage through the provision of fully or partially funded work-based learning courses in materials and metallurgy.    

Convergence funding (previously known as  Objective 1) comprises the Economical Regional  Development Fund (ERDF) and the European Social  Fund (ESF), and is allocated to regions whose GDP per head was less than 75% of the EU average between 2000 and 2002 (Eurostat figures). Convergence applies to 99 regions across EU-27, representing 35% of the population, and aims to promote conditions conducive to jobs and growth.    

In the UK, eligible Convergence regions include West Wales and the Valleys, which are benefiting from £1.7 billion for the period 2007–2013. Together with match funding from the public, private and third sectors, it will drive a total investment of £2.9 billion. Of the Convergence funds available, £690 million from the ESF is being invested by the Welsh Government to help tackle economic inactivity, and increase skills and employment in Wales. This includes support to help promote materials knowledge, such as through the Materials Education Training and Learning (METaL) scheme at Swansea University.    

Working in Wales    
METaL, from Swansea University’s College of Engineering, is a £1.5 million scheme backed with Convergence ESF of £665,000. METaL forms part of the work-based learning programme (WBL), which is led by the University of Glamorgan, UK. The aim of WBL is to offer training to companies, allowing them to improve the skills of their workforce, and to help people fulfil their potential by improving their skills and job prospects. As part of the WBL programme, METaL has already trained over 50 people at degree-standard levels 4 to 7 (1st year degree to Masters) in the subject of materials science and engineering. By the end of the scheme, METaL will have trained more than 350 people from around 20 companies with a minimum of 10 credits at these levels. Similar schemes are being undertaken in other EU regions, including Knowledge in Metallic and Composite Materials, in Belgium, and Plastic – Material with Possibilities, in Finland.    

METaL offers a broad range of courses. Work based learning offers the ability to improve skills in the workforce while employees get to learn while they earn. Investment in staff through fully funded courses minimises the disruption and expense of paying for staff to attend courses in different counties or even countries. Swansea’s METaL courses are delivered in concise modules at the employer’s preferred frequency and location. In addition to the cost savings, the knowledge gained from the courses can improve outputs through improved problem solving and identifying process improvements. The university credits gained can also be used towards further study, and some delegates later go on to study for part-time degrees.    

Any company located in, and anyone working or living in the Convergence region in Wales is eligible to apply for funding for one of the METaL courses.  Courses are available to all employees, from trainees starting out in the company to long-standing members of staff who wish to improve their materials knowledge. Due to the nature of the training, people of all abilities can apply, regardless of their academic qualifications. Indeed, many WBL participants have worked their way up in companies and are more than capable of following course content despite not having the standard A-Levels required for entry into a full- or part-time undergraduate degree course.    

Courses run over an equivalent period of three days, although these may be spread over a number of weeks. They are delivered using interactive techniques and eLearning, allowing for theory to be applied and to improve understanding. A subsequent assessment in the form of reports or exams then allows the award of 10 university credits. These credits can be put towards further study or used for personal and professional development. Delegates can study up to a maximum of 60 credits.    

The current Convergence funding period runs from 2007–2013 and work by the Welsh Government and its partners is currently underway, on the development of the successor 2014–2020 programmes, for which West Wales and the Valleys is likely to qualify. The WBL programme also offers a number of different courses ranging from engineering through to management. For more information, visit www.higherskillswales.co.uk.   

 

How METaL can benefit a company training plan?  

METaL has worked with Tata Steel, offering training and professional development to its employees. Many employees come into the workplace with A-Levels as their highest qualification and lack the applied materials science knowledge that is often needed within industry. The METaL-Tata partnership has put together a training programme where employees study six modules  providing them with the foundation knowledge needed to prosper within the  industry. Following the completion of six modules, a number of employees  have gone on to study for a part-time BEng degree in Materials Science and  Engineering. The METaL project is now forming part of the steel academy in  which Tata partake to train employees up to doctorate level.  Terry-Louise Betambeau took part in the METaL-Tata initiative, and  explains, ‘I work in a company whose primary activity is focused around  metallurgy. It was my employers who brought the training to my attention.  The course focused on teaching the fundamentals of metallurgy, which is  of a great help in my job. The things I have learnt have benefited me in my  day-to-day work. It has already led to a promotion and has given me a good  foundation for the new job. Having a fundamental understanding will allow  me to make the right decisions.’