Engineering the future

Published:  08 July, 2011

Standfirst: Andrew Copson, managing director of Sharpak Yate, Bridgwater and Holland, argues that industry, the Government and schools must work together to revitalise the sector and bring more young people into work. Central to this is tackling the disturbing lack of understanding young people have surrounding manufacturing. 

Youth unemployment has hit a record level, with nearly one million school leavers and graduates out of work. Added to this, reports state that manufacturing, a historic employer of young people, is suffering a hangover from the recession. However the current climate offers an opportunity for a manufacturing resurgence.

Britain remains a manufacturing powerhouse, the sixth biggest in the world and makes up 15% of our economy. This is twice the size of the financial services industry, and with sectors like these struggling post-recession, opportunities arise for a manufacturing renaissance.

This could be helped along by government measures, such as the Advanced Manufacturing Review. Aimed at growing manufacturing in the UK and increasing the proportion of the workforce seeking, and capable of, a career in manufacturing, it will see government and manufacturing working together to examine which barriers stand in the way of the sector realising its full potential.

The first phase of this review will focus on the food and drink industry as a priority. As an area Sharpak operates in, we would be keen to stress that one of the underlying issues standing in the way of a manufacturing resurgence a is lack of understanding from young people of the industry and what a career within the sector entails.

This cannot come too soon, as figures reveal, only 12% of 11 to 16-year-olds currently claim to understand what a career in engineering might involve. This is a disturbing statistic; young people cannot become passionate about a career path they know nothing about, and without new blood, manufacturing as an industry will stagnate.

Alongside a lack of education, too many young people are being persuaded to enter over-subscribed professions; contributing to youth employment. The latest figures showed a record high, with more than one in five 16 to 24-year-olds out of work and a youth unemployment rate of 20.5% compared with a general unemployment rate of 7.9%.

The roots of a manufacturing renaissance in this country begin with greater education and teaching for our young people, and more access to skills and training. Schools must do more to shake off the dreary perception of design and technology, and promote the innovative and exciting elements so more opt for this subject as a GCSE. For our industry to recover and become the driving force of UK recovery we need talented engineers, but currently just 4% of undergraduates study engineering – not enough to sustain a good talent pool for industry.

James Dyson argues that the UK is no longer proud of our manufacturing heritage. We no longer wish for our children to grow up to be engineers, and we need to rediscover the power of manufacturing, its impact and contribution. It can stimulate young minds and the economy.

The key to this is greater education on manufacturing and engineering in schools, and what careers within these industries involves. The young are curious about how and why things work, and we need to encourage and stimulate this rather than placing so much emphasis on directing young people towards ‘professional’ careers in finance, law or medicine.

There are other practical considerations as to why the education system should do more to inform young people about a career in manufacturing. With rising tuition fees soon to come into force, and recent figures revealing that one in six graduates already regret accumulating student debts, young people need fresh career alternatives.

Our industry can play a key role in promoting new career opportunities to young people and apprenticeships are crucial to this.

At Sharpak, our established apprenticeship scheme has already benefited local youngsters. We started the scheme because we identified a shortage of good, young trainee engineers, and we also wanted to create employment and training opportunities for students in the area.

Our apprentices are still working with us and it’s been fantastic to witness them learn and develop new skills, while proving to be a real asset for our company.

Our own successful apprentices show that young people can be passionate about engineering and manufacturing. Schools must do more to bring engineering back into the class room, but our industry has a role to play in supporting this, providing those young people a place where they can learn and develop their skills through viable ‘earn as you learn’ apprenticeship options.

We are laying the foundations of economic recovery as a country – but now we must do what we can to ensure the next generation has in place the passion for engineering, the tools, and knowledge in order for them to build on this.


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