UK manufacturing skills reaching crisis point: WorldSkills UK report issues wake-up call

Ben Blackledge
Ben Blackledge

British manufacturing is facing a major crisis, as productivity, recruitment and training lag behind international competitors.

With a large number of skilled jobs officially deemed ‘hard to fill’, 51% of employers are not working with training providers to help young people gain industry relevant skills and 41% of manufacturers admit doing absolutely nothing to attract young people into the sector.

An astonishing 83% of young people report facing ‘barriers’ to enter manufacturing with 48% saying that they have never received any information about why or how to do so. At the same time 60% of young people (16-24) said they would not consider a career in manufacturing.

These figures are revealed in a report commissioned by WorldSkills UK, in partnership with BAE Systems, undertaken by Learning & Work Institute, which was published in late May.

WorldSkills UK, the international arm of the country’s skill system, which commissioned the report, is calling businesses, governments, and educators to ‘wake up’ and take action to avert the looming crisis as alarm bells ring.

Its work with leading industrial nations shows that other countries are powering ahead partly because of enhanced collaboration between education and industry.

The message will be issued in Newcastle Upon Tyne as WorldSkills UK hosts an International Skills Summit on future skills, convened to review how the wider skills community copes with industry’s ever-increasing speed of change.

Without action, the Government's ambitions for increasing economic growth, levelling up, Industry 4.0, growth and increased productivity, all at the heart of the UK’s plans for growth are under threat.

Ben Blackledge, the Interim CEO of WorldSkills UK commented: “The situation is hugely concerning – we are now at crisis point. A very worrying pattern has emerged with two thirds of manufacturers reporting that lack of access to skills is proving an obstacle to business and 60% of young people saying that they wouldn’t consider a job in the sector. 

“British manufacturing is finding it tough enough to fill thousands of skilled vacancies – yet almost half say they aren’t doing anything to attract young people into the sector. At a time when 42% of vacancies are officially recognised as ‘hard to fill’, and access to skilled workers from other countries is disrupted, British manufacturers cannot afford to sit back and wait for someone else to do the heavy lifting. 

“Through our partnerships with employers, we know there are some great examples of employers engaging with skills providers and the positive effect that this is having on young people when they make their career choices,” he added. “However, we urgently need a more collaborative approach, with industry and education working more closely together, to show young people how rewarding pursuing a career in manufacturing can be.   

“We know, through our international benchmarking of skills and standards, that greater collaboration between industry and education in other countries is delivering a much more specialist training system that works for young people and employers. For UK national standards to compete with leading economies, we need more focus on embedding this approach. Failure to do so means we will at best stand still, which actually means we will fall further behind.”

The report, published on 25th May, was compiled following analysis and surveys with more than 350 manufacturers and over a thousand young people (aged 16-24).

Naomi Clayton, Learning and Work Institute, said: “Estimates suggest that there are tens of thousands of vacancies in manufacturing that are proving hard to fill due to skills shortages. This is limiting the UK manufacturing sector’s potential to drive growth and progress toward NetZero.

“Empowering more young people, and particularly young women, to choose careers in manufacturing could help them to access high skill jobs with good wages, and support manufacturers to innovate and grow.

“The Government needs to work with manufacturers to improve young people’s awareness of the breadth of opportunities in manufacturing. It also needs to boost investment in higher technical education and training and equip young people with the world class skills required by an internationally competitive advanced manufacturing sector.”

WorldSkills UK, which benchmarks the level of skills that can be considered world class, has pioneered a system to cascade its knowledge and experience directly to educators in colleges across the four nations.

Nearly 40,000 young people are already benefiting from the Centre of Excellence project, with many more to follow as more places of education come on stream within the next four months.

Among the other findings in the report are:

  • Those young people that do enter manufacturing can expect a wage premium, above average wages (£30,395 compared to £25,971)
  • Almost three in five manufacturers surveyed (57%) cite challenges accessing a skilled workforce. Over half (55%) of manufacturers are experiencing shortages in advanced manufacturing skills and even more (61%) in traditional manufacturing skills, such as fabrication, welding and mechanical engineering
  • Nearly two thirds (63%) of manufacturers believe that advanced manufacturing technologies and processes are currently impacting their skills needs, and more (69%) believe they will in the next five years
  • 83% of young people feel they face barriers entering the sector
  • 48% have never received any information about manufacturing careers

WorldSkills UK

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