Sourcing skills for next-gen factories

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Manufacturing firms must help inspire young engineers as production plants embrace digital technologies, Matthew Dale finds

Image: BigPixel Photo/shutterstock.com

As the economic upturn gains momentum in the mechanical and plant engineering sector, companies are increasingly faced with a shortage of skilled personnel. The German Mechanical Engineering Industry Association, the VDMA, and non-profit organisation, EngineeringUK, have both found evidence of a shortfall of skilled engineers in their respective countries.

In a survey of 570 HR managers, the VDMA found that 78 per cent see bottlenecks for finding experts with an academic qualification in a subject such as engineering, while 82 per cent see bottlenecks for skilled workers – employees that have completed vocational training. The situation is expected to worsen in the next six to 12 months, with more than 40 per cent of respondents expecting fewer skilled workers and experts to be available.

In the UK, the government’s latest employer skills survey found that in the manufacturing sector, 36 per cent of vacancies were proving hard to fill because of applicants lacking appropriate skills, qualifications or experience, compared to the 24 per cent average across other sectors. According to EngineeringUK, there is a shortfall of up to 59,000 people in meeting the annual demand for 124,000 core engineering roles in the UK. There is also demand for 79,000 roles requiring a mixed application of engineering knowledge and skills, alongside other skill sets to be filled every year, between 2019 and 2024.

It is also likely that as the world moves to a more digital and green economy, this demand will increase over time.

‘Decarbonisation and digitalisation pose major challenges for companies and require well-trained engineers,’ says Dr Franziska Šeimys, the VDMA’s educational policy adviser. ‘In addition, the demographic need for replacements is rising sharply. In the field of STEM academics, 62,000 people will retire in Germany each year by 2023. This means that around two-thirds of graduates will be needed to meet the replacement demand alone.’ 

Bhavina Bharkhada, head of policy and campaigns for Make UK, which represents the country’s manufacturers, also highlights the importance of addressing the skills shortage, with manufacturers increasingly taking advantage of digital technologies. ‘They have focussed particularly on robotics, artificial intelligence (AI) and the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT),’ Bharkhada says. 

‘Our research shows 78 per cent of manufacturers find IoT beneficial to improving their resilience; AI, 73 per cent; and robotics, 76 per cent. Manufacturers see numerous benefits to investing in industrial digital technologies. However, the value of digitalisation adoption can only be realised if the right innovation, research and skill system support is put in place. This is vital to move companies from the preconception phase to the revolution phases. While we have seen progress in the last two years, we still have some way to go, and cracking our skills challenge will be central to this.’

Sparking interest in young minds

How then is the skills gap being addressed and what can be done to reduce it?

According to Šeimys, it is a central task of VDMA member companies and the association to get young people excited about technical professions in mechanical and plant engineering.

‘This starts in school,’ she says. ‘Many of our member companies cooperate closely with local schools to give young people insights into the company and show them what challenging activities await them there. For example, they offer internships for schoolchildren or organise an open house to show what products the company offers and what professions are trained there. As an association, we support our members by promoting technical professions and informing young people, especially on the internet and in social media. With our YouTube channel, Talentmaschine, we show – with the help of influencers – how exciting technology can be.’

In the UK, organisations such as Make UK are involved in a number of initiatives to address the skills shortage. For example, its Kickstart scheme is designed to get 16 to 24 year olds into training to provide them with a career opportunity and support organisations with skills shortages. Make UK is also involved with training hundreds of apprentices each year in a range of engineering and manufacturing courses. 

The organisation also conducts policy and campaigning work to influence government policy and ensure the issues that matter to UK manufacturing are heard. ‘Our work focuses on backing and campaigning our sector, strengthening the UK’s industrial base, and increasing productivity and wealth creation across every region, boosting our economy and helping to deliver the much-needed levelling up agenda,’ says Bharkhada.

Digital transformation

A big part of addressing the skills shortage is not only getting more young people into technical professions, but also developing the skills of those across the mechanical and plant engineering talent pipeline. 

‘The demands on the workforce in our companies are changing ever faster,’ says Šeimys. ‘This development is driven by the digital transformation and the challenges of climate change and sustainable production. This affects the entire value chain in a company, and thus the entire workforce.’ 

Skills therefore need to be developed, which can be done through a variety of training opportunities both inside and outside a company. ‘For example, vocational training can be followed by training to become a foreman, a technician or even [by] completing a university degree,’ says Šeimys. ‘The companies support their employees in this, often financially as well.’

For employees to be trained, however, companies need to know which competencies are required for a certain position in the company, and which competencies the people currently working there possess. 

‘This requires regular and professional competence management,’ Šeimys continues. ‘In this way, employees can be qualified for the new tasks at their workplace or further trained for other jobs in the company.’

The gender divide

The other shortage present in mechanical and plant engineering is that of female workers, with only 9.2 per cent of engineers in the industry being women, according to Šeimys, who said mechanical engineering is the sector with the lowest proportion of women compared with other important industrial sectors.  

Thankfully, numerous initiatives are currently aimed at strengthening interest in technology among young people and increasing the proportion of women in connection with STEM subjects, with the success of such initiatives slowly being felt. 

Šeimys says that the proportion of women graduating from core engineering subjects – such as mechanical engineering, electrical engineering and computer science – in Germany has risen from 15 per cent in 2010 to 19.4 per cent in 2019. ‘The goal must be to further increase this proportion and to attract female graduates from technical and computer science programmes to mechanical engineering,’ she adds.

Digital technologies and Industry 4.0 may offer an opportunity for this, Šeimys says, as these trends are changing not only industry and value networks, but also the nature of work in Germany and around the world. For example, mechanical engineering companies can take advantage of the opportunities offered by digital tech in terms of mobile working, new time models or even part-time management.

‘Filling these opportunities with life and creating a welcoming culture for women in mechanical engineering companies is central,’ she says. ‘To this end, employees – including the ones in management positions – in mechanical engineering companies must be sensitised to corporate cultural barriers. These include unconscious discrimination processes in personnel recruitment, career opportunities for women, but also how they are treated within the company.’

Image: TMLsPhotoG/shutterstock.com

Šeimys also highlights the importance of updating job images in a more realistic way to enable them to appeal to female engineering students: ‘This opens up new opportunities to modernise the rather conservative image of engineering jobs – [that is] screwdriver/cogwheel – in mechanical and plant engineering. The topics of climate-neutral production, decarbonisation and resource conservation can likewise increase the attractiveness of mechanical and plant engineering as an employer for female students, in the sense of working on the great challenges of our time.’

Bharkhada of Make UK agrees: ‘As manufacturing recovers from the pandemic and embraces new technologies, the task of reframing manufacturing as an attractive, progressive sector with employers who exude this approach has never been more urgent. This transformation will need more highly skilled employees from all sections of society who can respond to these opportunities and challenges.’

State-side shortages

As you might expect, the skills shortage is not something unique to Europe. In California, motion control solutions manufacturer Bishop-Wisecarver is also seeing a shortage in skilled engineers. 

‘It is partly driven by our proximity to Silicon Valley, where the emphasis is on software engineering,’ Pamela Kan, the firm’s president, tells Imaging and Machine Vision Europe. ‘We need mechanical, electrical and industrial engineers and those are often not as popular for students in California.’ She adds that one positive outcome of the pandemic is that it has opened up the talent pool for Bishop-Wisecarver’s engineering roles, as team members can now work remotely.

Bishop-Wisecarver is a member of the Association for Advancing Automation (A3) in the US, and Kan spoke on a panel discussion on the topic of workforce development during A3’s Automate Forward digital show.

Similar to Šeimys, Kan highlights the importance of training current employees as a tool for addressing the skills shortage.

‘California needs to promote, and adequately fund, the Employment Training Panel (ETP), which helps companies like mine by reimbursing the cost of training current team members so their skills can keep up with the continual technology advancements,’ she says. ‘Other states and countries should have similar programmes. The burden for workforce development is exceptionally high for small and medium manufacturers and we often don’t have the depth of team members needed to scale and support in-house training, especially during production hours. Wage and hour laws can also be punitive for training outside of work hours and this is where I think augmented and virtual reality training options could have a significant impact.’

Bishop-Wisecarver’s European partner, HepcoMotion, based in the UK, runs an apprenticeship programme in partnership with Exeter College. Maurice Porter, head of learning, development and apprenticeships at HepcoMotion, says the benefits of the scheme are strong links with the community and an ability to refresh ideas and working practices, as well as to bridge the engineering skills gap.

HepcoMotion has been running its apprenticeship scheme for 23 years. The apprentices are sourced from local schools and colleges, and a full apprenticeship lasts for 42 months, although the firm also runs a 10-week traineeship in partnership with Exeter College. Trainees can secure operator roles in the firm’s machine shop or go on to take a place on the apprenticeship scheme.

Porter says that, on the shop floor, the company supports a learning culture with a skills transfer from older, experienced engineers to younger engineers. ‘This teaches our inexperienced engineers new skills, and empowers our older engineers and causes them to reflect on their own engineering practices,’ he says.

HepcoMotion employs four or five apprentices every year. ‘The company realises the value of apprentices in terms of bridging the skills gap, as well as the addition of fresh ideas, enthusiasm and diversity,’ Porter adds.

Some machine vision firms have similar training schemes – Basler, for instance, offers vocational training courses for young people in electrical and mechanical engineering, and computer science disciplines, among others.

In the long-term, Kan believes that firms such as Bishop-Wisecarver should be involved in supporting community STEM programmes at all levels of education, and creating internship and co-op programmes for college students. Near-term, they should be promoting a corporate culture that emphasises the importance of a diverse engineering team and include evidence that this doesn’t just exist on paper.

‘Diverse individuals brought together to work collectively can create faster, better and more innovatively, bringing transformative ideas to the company and industry,’ Kan concludes. ‘Diverse engineering teams create the best solutions.’