2 September 2020
by Idha Valeur

Strengthening manufacturing - closing the skills gap and benefits of apprenticeships

Stephen Mitchell, Director of Apprentices and Technical Training at manufacturing trade body Make UK, talks to Idha Valeur about closing the skills gap and the benefits of apprenticeships.

© Make UK
An apprenticeship is a route into a career with no debt from training and you can earn a salary from the very start

Stephen Mitchell

Make UK


What are the main challenges in closing the skills gap in manufacturing?
There are two main challenges – the first is having the next generation of engineers ready to join the sector. We are working really hard to ensure that we are inspiring the next generation, but with tough competition from other sectors such as IT, finance and media – it is not always an easy task. We need to work in collaboration to showcase what the sector has to offer. If we have a consistent message to the next generation about the benefits of the sector, then this will really have impact. 

We have developed a specific programme to make sure that young people are aware of the careers on offer and the huge benefits that come with that. We are running regular STEM events at our centre to inspire them, working in partnership with the STEM organisation to showcase the manufacturing sector. Last year, we held a Makers Meet festival to showcase new innovation and we saw an attendance of 1,000 young people all wanting to learn more about manufacturing. 

An apprenticeship is a route into a career with no debt from training and you can earn a salary from the very start – an important message that we try to convey. The second challenge is ensuring that our customers understand the benefits of apprenticeships as a route to future proofing their companies and it is not seen as a cost and hassle that is too difficult to take on. Promoting the benefits of apprenticeships to employers can sometimes be difficult, especially in the current climate.

The education sector also needs to better showcase the apprenticeship route and promote it as a valued career path and not a second-rate substitute for university. Government needs to support the development of apprenticeships and also provide the right assistance for manufacturing employers to encourage them to support and employ apprentices as part of their workforce. 

The apprenticeship process is too focused on cost and value for money. Of course, this is relevant, but it drives the behaviour of the controlling organisations away from the real goal, which is, why was this needed, is it fit for purpose and how can we help make it work? It is just as important to have an apprenticeship that fits the needs of a niche but developing industry as it is to meet the needs of the car industry. A trailblazer group can be formed around the UK automotive industry easily, but a niche single producer industry will not succeed and therefore the apprenticeship they use will not fit.

Can you tell me more about the Make UK Technology Hub?
The Make UK Technology Hub in Birmingham offers apprenticeships and upskilling training for those people working in the manufacturing and engineering sector. Training over 300 apprentices each year for companies such as Ibstock, Forterra, JLR, Rolls-Royce, Ishida and more, the facility offers a blend of workshop, automation and classroom facilities – along with a dedicated STEM classroom used to run sessions with local schoolchildren.

The apprentices are all employed from day one with their chosen company. In the first year of their apprenticeship they would train at the Make UK facility full-time, going into the company for a few weeks during the year. During the final years of the apprenticeship, they are based in their companies and come to the apprentice facility one day a week or on block release depending on the company’s preference. 

How has training adapted during COVID-19?
During the pandemic, we quickly switched our academic teaching to digital learning through virtual classrooms – getting 90% of the learners online within two weeks of the shutdown. Those apprentices who have been furloughed have been able to carry on their studies with the support of Make UK. The teaching of the workshop elements of the apprenticeship were slightly more difficult to get online quickly, but within the month we had workshop refresher sessions online. The apprentice centre has now reopened for practical training, but only with limited numbers. 

What are the skills issues as industry transitions to Industry 4.0?
I would say that identifying skills shortages is a major challenge. Understanding what skills are required to adapt and evolve to an environment where we are immersed in data and tech is crucial. In short, the skills that are likely to be demanded can be split into baseline digital skills that help to boost productivity through software such as Word, Excel and SAP, and specific digital skills such as software and programming, data analysis, digital design and machining, and manufacturing technology. 

These digital skills will be demanded in job roles and professionals will require a higher qualification. This is borne out in the data – the proportion of the labour workforce required to be at least at degree level is expected to increase from 32% in 2014 to 43% in 2024. Furthermore, The World Bank reported that almost 90% of new jobs will require digital skills to some degree. To support this transition, Make UK has called for the National Skills Taskforce to ensure the sector is ready to embrace a digital future.

For business leaders, identifying their skills shortage starts with the technology itself and presenting it in a form that industry and managers can understand. An example could be data analytics. This is about analysing data to understand trends, perhaps component characteristics, buying or selling trends and so on. The industry manager is not necessarily familiar with the terminology and so are not able to optimise the output by ensuring a component characteristic is within spec to the scope of a data analytics package, which will inform the manager and or/equipment to ensure it stays in specification. This problem then cascades through the various departments whether that is the purchasing team who are trying to figure out the best purchase model, to the blue collar worker who will need to possibly interpret the output, or the maintenance engineer who isn’t able to understand why the machine keeps adjusting itself in a certain way. 

At Make UK, apart from focus on understanding the digital gaps in industry, within our training facilities we try to consider digital technology from the perspective of the person using the equipment and upwards through the management structure and support functions. An example would be our robotics and automation training capabilities where we have upskilling courses for blue collar and white collar roles. 

How is the hub collaborating with industry?
We seek to understand their skills needs and how we can work closer as a sector, offering a variety of networking and best practice events. We also work with our central policy team to lobby government and provide advice on policies relating to apprenticeship training. 

Our members have a strong demand for their staff, many with lots of experience in the maintenance, operation and support of quite sophisticated equipment, needing the knowledge and understanding to design, install, maintain and manage automated solutions, often with a robotic focus. 

Mostly our customers are SMEs and for many the move into Industry 4.0 and digital technologies is slow and deliberate around the needs of their business growth. While engineering apprentices are very well established, created by auto and aero industry-led trailblazer groups, even these standards have limited demand for digital skills, particularly at Level 3 and below. Even at higher levels, digital skills are seen as a specialist pathway but in reality we need to develop knowledge across the whole employee demographic.

Unfortunately, the cost of these programmes is tightly managed and therefore there is not enough scope to add the relevant elements in these programmes unless the employer is prepared to pay extra and they are not allowed to use their Apprenticeship Levy. Re-writes of the Apprentice Standards will address this over time, but we are always running to catch up rather than developing these future skills into today’s apprentices.

Adding digital skills into existing apprenticeships can be done but it relies on providers being innovative and creative and it is not easy – the barriers can be financial and indeed a lack of skills within the provider. These have to be addressed as part of the overall picture. It is a question whether the drive to improve digital skills is government-led or employer-led.

There also remains a downward trend in apprenticeship starts since the introduction of the Levy, and the recent COVID-19 pandemic is likely to exacerbate this. What was a potential win-win situation has increasingly become a lose-lose for manufacturers. They continue to plough on to train the next generation, with many still committed to recruiting and supporting apprenticeships, but we must recognise that there still remains long-standing challenges that have yet to be addressed.

As we look ahead, there is also a growing focus on the need for green skills. Manufacturers are increasingly thinking about how to manufacture in a more sustainable and greener way, and this will require them to change, evolve and adapt processes in a way they haven’t before. Having the right expertise is crucial. It is also important as we think about attracting the next generation. This generation is more socially conscious and ethically aware, so manufacturers will need to think about how they can make their businesses a place where bright, young, climate-aware individuals want to work. Recruiting for wider talent pools and looking beyond traditional manufacturing skills will be vital.

The Department for Education’s White Paper in the autumn is an opportunity to crack this conundrum. Clear pathways showing the range of options available to young people post-16, including T Levels, apprenticeships, degrees, as well as how they all interact will be important.

What are your thoughts on the new T Levels, which have been developed in collaboration with industry so that the content meets its needs and prepares students for work?
The logic for T Levels is sound and manufacturers broadly support their introduction. There will no doubt be issues getting the various pathways right and alignment with other education approaches right, but having a clear, comparable technical route for young people aged 16-19 as an alternative to A Levels is crucial. For too long we’ve said we want to build a world-class technical education system, and T Levels are a good first step. Manufacturers welcome the three-month placement element, which give them an opportunity to take on a young person in their business for a short period, without the commitment of a full apprenticeship yet.  

There is no doubt that there will be some teething issues as roll-out begins in September, but once identified they need to be fixed quickly to build trust in the system. This is a big change and once committed we need to see it through – the skills landscape has seen significant chop and change over the last few decades, a period of stability to embed the changes will be vital. The disruption to the education industry is real and government needs to support both public and private education providers in that transition in terms of guidance and direction, as well as finance.

How can the industry, the education sector and government help and aid that work?
There are some incredible innovations already within manufacturing but the impact they have can be hidden. An example would be 3D printing. Education providers need to be well informed themselves to ensure that knowledge is up to date and passed on.

Industry itself will have a role but government has to drive the focus and then support the focus financially. Once the education systems are aware of the technologies and are forced to include them in curriculums at schools, colleges, apprenticeships etc., then adoption will ultimately get higher. The underlying theme here is the need for a well-structured and committed long-term plan around these technologies which doesn’t appear to be the case today. We use 3D printing as an example, but we could have similar discussions around composite materials, nanotechnologies, cyber and data analytics. We need to demystify the Industry 4.0 of digital vocabulary in a similar way, but really quickly.

Related topics


Idha Valeur