A stark warning from a top North East engineering firm has reignited a long-running debate on the chronic skills shortage facing the region.
Matt Boyle, the boss of electric vehicle parts innovators Sevcon, last week told the Journal he would have to hunt outside the North East to find the skills necessary to grow his company.
Mr Boyle’s comments have sparked a flurry of responses from people in industry and education over the immediate gap facing employers and longer-term strategies to address the problem.
James Gill, director of North East-based First Class Technical Recruitment, a specialist technical employment practice working in manufacturing sectors including oil and gas, chemical, pharmaceutical and renewables, said: “The North East’s reputation for innovation and engineering expertise has created considerable opportunities for companies, but is in danger of exposing the lack of depth in the region’s pool of skilled workers.
“Of course, investment in apprenticeships needs to continue, but there also needs to more encouragement for university students to take up engineering placements mid-degree rather than just focus on completing their studies. This will make them more attractive to employers, but also speed up their integration into the workplace.
“However, we have to look at the here and now to ensure businesses can take advantage of the work that will become available in the next 18 months or so. To help bolster the pool we need to attract engineers from other sectors and other regions who have complementary transferable skills.
“With effective re-skilling programmes, supported by government and employers, as well as sourcing returning UK professionals from overseas, significant steps can be taken towards addressing this major issue for the North East.”
Meanwhile Semta, the organisation which represents 138,000 companies in the UK’s advanced manufacturing and engineering (AME) sector raised another issue which is likely to compound the skills issue.
The organisation’s chief operating officer Ann Watson pointed to Semta research which shows 8,500 people in the North East’s AME sector are due to retire by 2017.
She said: “Much has been done by Government, employers, training providers and educators to not only highlight the skills issue but also to put solutions in place.
“While the North East has seen a significant increase in the number of apprentices, only 27% of AME companies in the region recruit apprentices – the aim being to get this to 50% by 2016.
“We need a huge shift in emphasis to redress the balance and build a proper skills pipeline. Vocational education is slowly being recognised to be on an equal footing with the university route but we still need to tear down the barriers of academic snobbery which tends to exist around apprenticeships.
“Companies like Sevcon and Hitachi are just two of the many examples of companies investing in the North East and one of the main reasons is the quality and reputation of the region’s workforce.”
Thoughts on the ageing skills base were echoed by the North East Chamber of Commerce’s chief executive James Ramsbotham who warned of a danger that firms will quickly reach capacity as they leak skills to retirement.
Mr Ramsbotham said: “This is a real issue and something that must be addressed quickly by both the worlds of education and business to make sure we have work-ready young people equipped to step into the roles available in the regional workplace.
“Around 80% of our engineering firms do not currently have apprentices or are not engaged in the skills development agenda. It is vital that these companies explore the potential of recruiting apprentices – motivated learners who can be moulded to meet the needs of the individual business.
“I would urge all firms to consider apprenticeships. It is not only good for your business, it is also good for regional business.”