Mind the gap – how can we plug the industrial skills shortage?

Leanne Holmes, Site Managing Director and Operations Manager, Crane Payment Innovations

When I attend networking events, I often hear the same problems being raised by companies in the manufacturing and engineering sectors: ‘what do we do about the lack of skills?’ While there is always a need to ensure organisations develop employees for skills retention, I believe this to be more of a lack of awareness of the vast array of opportunities available within these sectors. All too often, when I’m speaking with students and young adults considering their career choices, there seems to be a divide between those knowing what role they want to pursue and those students that aren’t so sure.

I know because I was once that student. When I was at school, I didn’t really have a clear career goal in mind. While all my friends seemed to have it figured out, for me, I only knew the subjects I enjoyed – mainly maths. I also knew I had an inquisitive nature and loved to solve problems.

Teaching isn’t the only path…

At the time, I remember my careers advisor told me that my love of maths meant I should pursue a career as a maths teacher. So this is what I focussed on, following the traditional route – some 20 years ago – of going to university and studying a Maths and Economics degree. Part of my degree included statistics which I loved – analysing data and looking for patterns and an element of Operations Management. Little did I know this would become my lifelong career and a step into a sector that, at the time, wasn’t even on my radar.

After graduation, I continued to believe that teaching was still for me. It was only after a summer placement, at the age of 21, that I realised it wasn’t the case. With a student loan hanging over me, I did what most people do and stepped into the world of work. For me, this was a temporary administration role covering for the PA to the Managing Director of a manufacturing company in Bury. It was my first insight into what a manufacturing business was – and the diversity in opportunities that it brought, from HR to customer services, purchasing to logistics. When people say no two days are ever the same, they’re right!

My career has spanned many different sectors, from paper manufacturing to automotive. But whatever the business or role, one thing has always puzzled me – why are all the diverse roles that are fundamental to these businesses succeeding not known or promoted within schools and colleges? When do you hear students say they want to be quality engineers or customer services representatives, using their language skills to communicate with customers globally?

Why didn’t I consider an apprenticeship?

The same goes for girls considering STEM subjects. Knowing that I had and still have a real passion for solving problems, why was I not told to consider an apprenticeship in manufacturing? Alternatively, I could have considered becoming a production engineer or taking on a role that helps a company to work out how to become more profitable through continuous improvement. Having since taken on both these positions, I know they fulfil my passions much more than just applying my love of maths to becoming a maths teacher.

I believe the best way to address the perceived skills gap in manufacturing and engineering is to ensure that, from a young age, students are aware of the vast array of career opportunities available. This also applies to the staff and teachers that help to support student choices. I regularly speak in schools in Oldham and Rochdale to talk about my experience and demystify the sector with school children. Challenging the perception of engineering and the manufacturing sector is vital and that’s why I welcome the Royal Academy of Engineering’s ‘This is Engineering’ campaign. We can all do more to challenge the myth that manufacturing is about the man at the lave.

Moving forward, we should be encouraging better connections with local schools and colleges so we can continue to make sure the skills needed to make our businesses successful are taken up by students making informed choices about their career paths, while tapping into their passions. Simultaneously we also must consider how can we develop a more inclusive workforce and encourage more progression within the sector from a more diverse range of backgrounds and experience.

What the Growth Company is doing for people already in manufacturing

The Growth Company is the national delivery partner for the Be the Business Mentoring for Growth programme – an initiative which connects SMEs with a mentor from an industry-leading organisation. A mentor is such a fantastic way to help develop skills of people who need that additional support. Often the role of the mentor is to provide a supportive ear and help reinforce decision-making. Building resilience and confidence and helping that decision-making process is one of the most important skills for a leader to develop, and it is only achieved through time and encouragement.

The Manufacturing Institute offers a range of training courses, including leadership development specifically for those in the sector. This is a great way to learn the basics of leadership and practice implementing these skills in a business environment.

Finally, I’m proud to be part of Greater Manchester’s Manufacturing Champions network. This events programme connects executives from manufacturing and engineering SMEs with leaders from organisations including Siemens UK, Cargill and Diodes. The sessions drill into a recognised manufacturing technique, and attendees work in teams to solve problems – all whilst sharing best practice and learning from each other’s experience. The events always include a factory tour, which is a fantastic opportunity to see how other businesses operate – and to discover how you can utilise some of these skills in your own business.

These opportunities aren’t just about driving productivity in the sector. They are important ways that we can raise the level of leadership in the sector, equipping the widest range of people with the skills they need to lead excellent manufacturing businesses.