Addressing the manufacturing skills gap in a post-Brexit Britain

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The skills gap is not an issue that is going to just go away unless the manufacturing sector takes some decisive action, says Adam McGiveron

Businesses and government bodies are already making great efforts to attract and retain talent within their organisations but there is always more that can be done to improve the image of the UK’s advanced manufacturing sector and promote the benefits of pursuing a career in this area. With the decision to leave the EU causing increased uncertainty, business and the Government must act now in order to keep the UK and the sector an attractive employment option.

The shortage of senior, highly-skilled engineers across the board in the UK has been highlighted by figures released in the latest manufacturing purchasing managers’ index (PMI) which has slumped to its lowest level in more than three years, following the EU referendum. There is no doubt that many people were put off pursuing careers in the sector during the 1980s and 1990s, which has contributed to the current shortage of highly-skilled individuals the sector is experiencing today.

However, while the skills gap is arguably most noticeable in the STEM sector, it is important not to focus on this area alone. The need for an influx of talented, creative and original thinkers into the UK holds the key for the future development of businesses across the spectrum.

    “While the skills gap is arguably most noticeable in the STEM sector, it is important not to focus on this area alone

Employers must take steps to narrow the skills gap both in terms of finding new talent and encouraging the upskilling of employees in order to future-proof their businesses. In doing so, organisations are making great efforts to engage with schools and universities which are already leading to greater enthusiasm for advanced manufacturing amongst young people. Additionally, apprenticeships can play a key role in creating a more prepared and qualified workforce and are often open to Government grants which bring benefits to both the individual and the employer.

The progressively positive image of this sector, partly driven by the media, has played a large role in increasing this enthusiasm. Students and young people can now envisage careers in advanced manufacturing, engaging with cutting edge technology, rather than the traditional view of manufacturing – factory work, confined to a production line, for example. Continuing to further shake off these historic perceptions of the industry will help to firmly put advanced manufacturing on the map more permanently.

In order to accelerate the narrowing of the skills gap, the Government now needs to help businesses by promoting employment on every level. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem as if the skills gap will be at the top of the political agenda any time soon and over the long term this could be extremely detrimental to the national economy. The decision to leave the EU without doubt poses a serious problem for talent acquisition as many businesses source much-needed talent from the EU.  Adapting to marketplace changes as and when new agreements are made will be needed to overcome the ramifications of the Brexit vote.

Many businesses rely heavily on imported labour because it is the only way to access people with the necessary and appropriate skillset for certain fields of work. If replacement measures aren’t sought swiftly by the Government, business owners believe that overseas workers might see no future in British manufacturing and seek employment elsewhere.

Although the current outlook could be viewed as turbulent and uncertain, businesses must maintain their composure. There is no doubt that change is coming and the way in which labour is accessed is likely to alter but businesses should take a pragmatic approach to decision making. Those who are able to properly understand the ramifications and nuances of these changes will steal the march and gain a competitive edge.

Adam McGiveron is partner and advanced manufacturing sector head at law firm Shakespeare Martineau.

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