There are clearer signs than ever that youngsters are recognising the prospects that a career in manufacturing or engineering can offer them compared to other sectors. This is having a positive impact on the number of students studying those subjects in the North East – which is vital to beat the skills shortages in the sector.
Dr Sandy Anderson, a senior lecturer and director of teaching at Newcastle University’s School of Mechanical and Systems Engineering, explains how the university is trying to raise awareness of North East companies and what they can offer students.
“What you have in the North East is a lot of world-leading companies, but their names may not be very well-known to the public and people don’t automatically know they are there. They may not be SMEs, they could be a small provision of an international group, but because they are not well-known, they are not necessarily getting the applications from university graduates that they might want to get.”
He said: “We are now working with a lot of companies at the university because they can help us improve the students’ overall engineering skills and capabilities. We are also trying to raise the students’ awareness of this big range of North East companies making world-leading products, that are not household names.”
Dr Anderson explained that it was more typical for North East companies to be both involved in the manufacture and design of a product – from start to finish.
“British Engines for example make BEL Valves. They manufacture large specialist made-to-order valves, controls and actuators for the oil and gas industry. They will build a complete valve ready for it to be used.
“It is a family-owned company in the North East which employs around 1,200 people. They also had their own in-house apprenticeship scheme before the Government started to push apprenticeships to get skills into industry. They are actually doing something really worthwhile.
“BEL Valves are a benchmark product, but I wouldn’t of thought many people around Tyneside know about them. Some of our students don’t even know about them and you have a whole range of companies like that here in the North East.
“Down on the riverside you have SMD and they are the world leaders in what they do as well as spinoffs of bigger international groups like Duco. As local companies, they are quite small, not well-known, but are at the cutting edge of engineering and making lots of money for the UK.”
So does Dr Anderson think there is an increasing awareness of the shortage of skilled graduate
He said: “There is an increasing awareness that in the engineering and manufacturing sectors there is a shortage of skilled graduate engineers in the UK. Even the Government recognises that and they are now talking about visas for the right kind of people to come into the country to fill these jobs.
“One of the issues for companies in the North East is that they are only recruiting one or two graduates per year. Once they get these people, they want to keep them and get those who want to stay in the North East and not just hop from job to job.
“Obviously manufacturing is very specific and apart from the education that we’ll give them, companies need to train students in their products. So when they take on these young people, they are also training them in a specialism. And the North East has a lot of these specialist leading-edge companies.
So what does Dr Anderson think makes a good engineer?
“They have to be ready to work with other people, you don’t do engineering on your own. You have to be able to work with others at your level across a range of disciplines because engineering is now very multidisciplinary” he said.
“You also have to be able to work with people below you, such as technicians and shop-floor operatives because they are the people actually delivering what you want. You have to understand how they work so you have to be a people person and relate to others above you because you have to deliver what the company wants – which at the end of the day is money.
“Whatever level you are at, you could be an apprentice, but you still have to work with other apprentices and be able to deliver what the engineers want, as well as using the other skilled labour below you. You also have to have good communication skills and technical knowledge and the ability to do what it is that you are doing. That may be with your hands which is where the apprenticeship route comes in. You have to be able to physically realise everything you have to do. At university level, we are looking for people who can critically think through problems, identify the route causes of things happening, so students need a logical and disciplined mental approach to things. They need to be very open and need to think of all possibilities, be imaginative and creative.
“They also have to think what could go wrong, because there is a thing called Sod’s law that says that if something can go wrong, it will go wrong. So you need to find out if it’s going to go wrong, before it actually does and you need the imagination to predict that.”
And what does Dr Anderson think about women considering a career in engineering?
He said: “We find it difficult to get women into engineering and manufacturing in the UK.
“However, I used to run our foundation year here for seven years and over that time, women consistently got the highest average marks and also had the likelihood of progressing and not failing.
“That was every year for seven years continuously as I was measuring the results. We have had women graduates who have gone into very senior positions and do very well. If you look at Siemens Energy for example in Newcastle, one of our graduates, Hannah Todd, is responsible for all steam turbine and generator R&D project coordination and has obviously got what it takes.
So does Dr Anderson think the engineering sector has benefitted from tuition fees in universities?
He said: “Some people think we have, but I’m not so sure about that. I don’t think it’s having as big of an effect as we would like it to have in a way. One of the problems in the UK is that in schools there really isn’t much awareness of what engineering involves, what kind of pupils would do well in engineering and who wouldn’t.
“Next week we will be hosting the Engineering Education Scheme where schools around the region carry out a project with a company. To kick it off, they come and do a residential at the university and the company engineers come in and kickstart the project. They then take it back into the schools to work on it.”
What about apprenticeships and those pursuing more vocational routes compared to university?
Dr Anderson said: “The thing about engineering is that it needs people across the whole spectrum. It needs the hands-on guys who do the actual making as much as it needs the clever guys who do the design and make it look pretty. It also needs the guys who then run the factories, do the management and keep the accounts right. It really needs people from all walks of life.”
One of the problems with British education according to Dr Anderson has been the obsession people have had with going to university.
He said: “We’ve had this obsession with people going to university and we’ve lost sight of the importance of the people doing the vocational skilled trade route. Germany has been years ahead of us on that and now there has been a shift in trying to build up apprenticeships again.
“The problem with that is the sort of Further Education diplomas and certificates have been dumbed down over the years and the money hasn’t gone into that sector. We’ve all been too busy getting everyone to university and we haven’t looked at all the people who actually don’t need to go there, those who would be better for the country and themselves doing something different.
“University has become too fashionable in a sense and it has become an expectation and rite of passage rather than an ongoing professional education for a career.”
So what does the future hold for the engineering and manufacturing sector according to Dr Anderson?
He said: “Since the Thatcher Government of the 1980s, Britain has been obsessed with the financial sector, and manufacturing occupies a much smaller part of the gross national product than it did back then. But what it actually contributes has gone up, what manufacturing hasn’t had is a fair crack of the whip from Government in terms of the support it needs. Despite that, it’s still thriving.
“The common perception is ‘Well all the shipyards have gone’, but there are an astonishing number of new smaller companies taking their place. There is some really good work going on. The trouble is these companies are employing a much higher level of skilled people and are not taking all the unskilled labour they used to, so they employ a tiny fraction of the people that the old industries employed.
“What they are employing however is a much higher quality of worker making better products than before and selling more of them abroad for more money.”