From spanners and oily hands to digital technology and automation – plugging the employment gap with skills for the future
Last month, a survey carried out by Nineteen Group alongside Hunter Selection, a specialist recruitment service dedicated to finding exceptional candidates to fill roles in the engineering, manufacturing, technology and service sectors, found that a staggering 78% of UK industrial companies are finding it harder or much more complex than usual to recruit the employees they need. We caught up with Russell Smith, Managing Director of Hunter Selection, to discuss the reasons behind the shortage and what his company are doing to help tackle the problem.
1/ Looking at the survey, what are the findings that struck you the most and is it in line with your experience?
The number of manufacturing and engineering companies finding recruitment difficult is striking – 78% is an astronomical figure. Having worked in the industry for a number of years (27 and counting), I can’t say it’s surprising as in that time there has always been a skills shortage in the sector and the last few years have presented the industry with some unique challenges. Nevertheless, it is a staggering figure to look at and a problem that needs to be tackled so that it doesn’t become worse in the future.
2/ Why have you chosen to be involved in Manufacturing and Engineering Week?
Manufacturing and Engineering Week is an opportunity for the very best talent in the industry to gather together, learn from each other and build lasting relationships. I want to be a part of that. I feel very passionate about recruitment within the sector. It has some fantastic people within it and I am always keen to connect with them, something which the pandemic has made tricky in the last few years.
In the time I have worked in the sector, there has always been a shortage of candidates but right now there are more vacancies than ever. Manufacturing and Engineering Week will give me the opportunity to connect with the right people to fill those vacancies.
3/ You mention there are more vacancies than ever. Why is that?
It’s a combination of factors. Brexit has played a huge role. For example, many shopfloor engineers came from Eastern Europe and filled the vacancies in the sector. When Brexit happened, a lot decided to travel back east and no one else could come to replace them. Meanwhile, there hasn’t been enough homegrown talent created to plug the gaps.
The pandemic has also had an impact. During the pandemic, many people were furloughed or given shorter hours. They were pleased to at least have some level of job security and didn’t want to risk jumping ship at a time of uncertainty. Although confidence is starting to return and people are beginning to think about shifting roles, there still aren’t enough candidates to go round.
4/ In your opinion is there a lack of desire or a lack of skills in manufacturing and engineering? What do you think manufacturing and engineering companies can do to tackle this and do you think they are doing enough to promote themselves, especially to young people?
It’s a bit of both. Manufacturing and Engineering has some fantastic talent but it is important that businesses remember that it is an ever-evolving industry. Companies need to keep an eye on the latest trends and have the foresight to see how the industry is developing, so that they can make sure their staff have the right skills for the job in future. Engineering isn’t just about spanners and oily hands anymore. We have moved beyond that to a time where traditional manufacturing and digital technology are coming together to improve processes and efficiencies, but if staff aren’t trained to use it then companies can’t make the most of the latest technologies.
Additionally, at any given time 20-25% of the manufacturing workforce are within five years of retirement. That’s no small number so it is important to not only make sure the current workforce is well skilled, but to also develop the talent of the future or the industry will have a big problem. This needs to start young. School children need to know exactly what engineering is, see all the brilliant things manufactured in the UK and learn that they can be a part of this when they leave school.
At Hunter Selection, we support regional apprenticeships which will help the industry to secure a digitally focussed workforce for the future. Manufacturing and engineering companies may like to consider doing similar and produce their own people with the skills needed to support their business. It can take a long time but can prove to be a worthwhile investment with a great return.
5/ In terms of lifelong skills development and reskilling, do you think more needs to be done on this front to help older workers transfer between careers?
Many people within manufacturing and engineering resign themselves to leaving the sector in their 50s as they decide that technology has moved on too much for them. This is a travesty as the industry loses some real talent and the shortage of staff gets bigger and bigger. It is important that those already in the industry are supported by their employer to upskill, so that the industry can retain the talent it already has.
6/ Are educational institutions doing enough to fill the gaps?
Education has such an important role to play in developing the engineers of the future. It’s important that businesses work with colleges and universities to make sure they know what they are looking for in a workforce. The pandemic has had an impact here as well, with those currently training having struggled to get the practical experience they’ve needed over the last couple of years.
Before Brexit, many four-year sandwich courses included an element of study or work experience in the EU, which is something that can no longer happen. It’s important that trainees can still develop these skills elsewhere.
7/ What roles are you finding most difficult to fill at the moment?
There isn’t one type of job role that is proving difficult to fill but candidate expectations have shifted and they are often now looking for positions where they feel valued by their employer and can have a greater work-life balance. Salary is, of course, important and it is proving difficult to fill roles where a client has not adjusted the salary to reflect the economic changes of the last few years, but people are also keen to work for forward thinking companies where they can see that diversity, inclusion, mental health and work-life balance are considered by the employer.
The pandemic has also made flexible working an important issue for many. While working from home isn’t always possible, those companies that are able and willing to adapt, for example by employing technology that allows their staff to work-offsite at least some of the time, will prove popular with candidates.
8/ In your experience, what tends to be the attitude of manufacturing and engineering companies towards using automation as a solution for filling hard to fill vacancies?
Most companies we work with show enthusiasm for automation and are keen to embrace it but there are some who are more reluctant. I often hear employers say they haven’t got the time to dedicate to recruitment and I suspect it’s similar for automation, but at some point they need to break the cycle, look beyond the day-to-day problems of their business and plan for the future.
9/ What can potential applicants do to improve their own chances of getting the job they want?
There can sometimes be a gap between what a client wants from a candidate and what they can realistically get. At Hunter Selection, we aim to manage expectations of both parties and close that gap. Applicants must be enthusiastic, adaptable and willing to learn, but a client can’t expect a candidate to have the same level of knowledge as an experienced member of the team. The interview is the candidate’s opportunity to stand out from the crowd and demonstrate how they have used their skills and experience to make a difference in previous roles and show how they can do the same in the next one.
Hunter Selection will be at stand B64 at Manufacturing and Engineering Week, taking place at the Birmingham NEC, 8-9 June. The event will be a celebration of British engineering, a two-day festival of innovation that will showcase the very best that UK industry has to offer, while also providing knowledge, inspiration and a touch of entertainment.
As well as giving the chance to talk to a huge number of the UK’s most innovative and creative companies, Manufacturing & Engineering Week has a full programme of education, workshops, talks and presentations, with several fun events thrown in.