How to avoid knowledge loss and get the right skills

Materials World magazine
10 May 2019

Navigating the skills landscape can be daunting when determining the key transferables, implementing digital and avoiding loss of knowledge. Idha Valeur talks to industry experts about where to start.

For years, STEM industries have been facing the issue of a waning workforce coming into the sector. What can the industry do to motivate the younger generation about career opportunities in STEM? How can early career starters ensure they have the right skills now and in the future? And what can be done to close the looming skills gap?

A survey last year by STEM Learning – a provider of educational and career support in science, technology, engineering and mathematics – showed that 70% of respondents found it hard to find candidates with the required skills, leading to a shortfall of more than 173,400 workers plus an average of 10 unfilled roles per business.

In the report, STEM Learning Chief Executive, Yvonne Barker, said, ‘Our new STEM Skills Indicator tells a story about UK business that we need to act upon. We spoke to business leaders in companies at the cutting edge of the industrial economy, from healthcare to AI and robotics. Most of them told us they are struggling to recruit staff with the STEM skills they need.’

Adding to this, Materials Processing Institute CEO, Chris McDonald, told Materials World that transferable skills will be ever more important as industries and their needs evolve.

‘Increasingly, our economy is reliant on STEM expertise. As we look to the future of Industry 4.0, I see more need for practitioners to have cross-over skills, particularly aligning digital technologies to traditional science and engineering disciplines.

‘I believe the fast-moving pace of technology means that an emphasis on the fundamentals of science and engineering is critical, to allow people to adapt their learning to new applications over time,’ he said. ‘The jobs of the future are hard to predict, but with a knowledge of heat and mass transfer, mechanical and control engineering and digital skills, an individual will find themselves readily able to thrive in the industries of the future.’

STEM Learning Higher Education and Technician’s Educational Development Programme Manager, Suhel Miah, explained that it is important for future-proofing that businesses commit to continuous professional development to meet, ‘the changing needs of the industry, to enable and empower professionals, to help attract and retain talent, which is a key sector-wide challenge’.

M&C Educational Training Services Ltd Principal Academic and Director, Richard S A Brown, highlighted that industries needs to widen their approaches and target people from different backgrounds. ‘Consider the person who does not go to university and study full-time, consider the person who initially is “less well-qualified” but can progress from further education to higher education, or the part-time student,’ he said.

When knowledge walks out

Loss of knowledge from the most experienced people in the workforce retiring creates further pressure for companies and professional engineering institutions (PEIs).

Brown said skills shortages have been an issue for 30 years, ‘with the reduction of manufacturing, investment in people has not been the highest priority’. He continued that issues from skills shortages have increased largely due to ageing and retirement, the realities of which are now being felt in full force. Employers can’t find the right workers, as the marketplace does not have the capacity or opportunities to find people with the appropriate knowledge, skills and qualifications, linked to competence.

In contrast, McDonald believes individual knowledge loss is inevitable, so one option could be to help older employees stay in work.

‘My approach is to enable employees to work for as long as they are able. It isn’t really possible to capture knowledge from an individual prior to retirement and equally, it makes little sense to lose the most valuable and knowledgeable employees, simply as a result of age,’ he said. ‘We strive to find ways to offer flexible working arrangements, changes in activity and opportunities for mentoring, that enable those employees that wish to, to keep working well into their 70s. In the future, I suspect this will be the norm for all of us.’

This approach protects knowledge in the short-term, but it cannot be sustained indefinitely. However, this culture change could support industries while they invest in other, long-term solutions.

It is a digital world

When it comes to digital skills, McDonald believes the key will be to implement the knowledge of those born after 2000 – digital natives for whom technology is second nature. Knowledge exchange works both ways, and these early career workers should be encouraged to pass on their digital skills to colleagues.

A 2018 report from European employers’ organisation, Ceemet, titled Digitalisation and the world of skills and education, states that as digitalisation is changing the society we live in, education must adapt and change focus.

‘The educational revolution is built upon an intensive and extensive collaboration between relevant players. This means that governments, industry and social partners have to create an environment ensuring that individuals can invest the time, motivation and means to (right)skill,’ the report reads.

‘Cooperation between education providers and industry is important in moving towards a more relevant, effective and transformative use of digital technologies,’ it continued.

‘Employers need to play a role in the design and development of curricula, making sure that courses reflect the development taking place in industry and the labour market. Where possible, government should facilitate teachers spending time in industry through work placements.’

Get the skills you need

In the STEM Learning survey, 56% of respondents expected the shortage of skills in STEM to worsen over the next decade. In contrast, it stated that it is likely that the sector will double the number of roles by 2028. So how can early career starters maintain their traditional and transferable skills, as well as committing to continuous improvement to meet the industry’s needs?

McDonald said the best way to gain knowledge is little and often, and he recommends networking, reading journals and attending conferences, but also a positive attitude. ‘Knowledge is nothing without understanding and it is the capability to take apparently disparate pieces of knowledge and to synthesise them into new solutions that is the real and valuable skill.

This can take some years to learn and requires complete immersion in different fields and an active and enquiring mind, but it is hugely valuable and will sustain throughout a long career,’ he added.

Miah urges young people to focus on the hard skills required by a role and then become a skilled practitioner in a chosen profession in the early stages of their career. ‘This will enable individuals to identify, hone and transfer forward their required skills to new roles and sectors. There should be a greater emphasis on people skills, both relationship building and management skills, coupled with teamwork and leadership. These aforementioned transferable skills will stand you in good stead throughout your career, across sectors,’ he said.

The skills of the future

As well as using conventional channels such as networking, McDonald recommends for early career starters to get the basics right first. ‘Everything comes from a solid foundation. Keep your mind open, seek out knowledge and make time to reflect and critically analyse what you have discovered.

‘This isn’t just about keeping on top of your skills, but ensuring you develop a mindset that will keep your work and life interesting for decades to come.’

According to Miah, harnessing technologies and digital platforms will require workers to adapt quickly and be creative learners. ‘There will need to be a greater emphasis on developing and honing your soft skills, which will be the differentiator between those with expertise, knowledge and skills – and those that can apply their expertise in a creative and innovative way with people in different contexts and constantly changing situations. My top tip is to focus on your communication, presentation and critical thinking skills, to help achieve more in your career.’

Industry professionals agree that to ensure the UK workforce has the skills industries need, education should be more industry-led, as well as focused on preparing for a digital future. For early career starters embarking on their professional journey in STEM, honing soft skills alongside core industry ones will be crucial.

‘Science and engineering fundamentals will always rate highly and definitely when integrated with digital skills. These are the key enablers,’ McDonald said. ‘Above this, an understanding of business, an ability to solve problems across the boundaries of traditional disciplines and an entrepreneurial mind-set are together the winning combination.’

Read more about skills and training, in Materials World, January 2019, page 26.