Dr Kylash Makenji, Principal Engineer at WMG, talks about his experience of the skill development ladder and the importance of equipping future generations with expertise for the future.
UK manufacturing strategy
In 2017, Professor Juergen Maier, CEO Siemens UK, and numerous other industry leaders, produced the ‘Made Smarter Review’ focused on industrial strategic challenges. As a result, three recommendations were produced, summarised as follows:
- Adoption: Build a national digital ecosystem that will be significantly more visible and effective and that will accelerate the innovation and diffusion of industrial digital technologies.
- Innovation: Refocus the existing innovation landscape by increasing capacity and capability through Digital Innovation Hubs, large-scale demonstrators and digital research centres.
- Leadership: Establish a national body, the Made Smarter UK (MSUK) Commission, comprising industry, Government, academia, further education and leading research and innovation organisations.
It’s critical to the success of these recommendations that we upskill millions of industrial workers to enable technologies to be adopted and exploited. McKinsey reports that effective reskilling of a workforce tends to bring a productivity uplift of 6-12%. Analysis suggests that every UK worker needs reskilling, approximately 30.5 million UK workers lack the full suite of skills they will require in 2030 to perform their jobs well.
I'm a Principal Engineer in the WMG SME Group, working closely with small to medium-sized manufacturing businesses. We work to support businesses that have innovation on their agenda and need assistance to develop new products, new processes, new systems and new ways of working.
I started my career with a four-year Technical Apprenticeship as a way of getting stuck straight into industry. Following this, I worked in the manufacturing industry for 20 years in the automotive supply chain before taking up a role at the University of Warwick. While working there, I completed my Masters of Science and Doctorate in Engineering. This combination of academic learning and practical experience has made me a huge advocate for on-the-job practical skills and training. I believe this is vital for engaging young people in technical careers while giving them the formal qualifications and education they need for progression.
Not everyone is cut out to go to University, and I didn't know what to do when I left school. Unfortunately, the careers advice at my school was “what department of Vauxhalls would you like to work in?” Now, there are many more options for young people looking for alternatives to the traditional route, including Degree Apprenticeships, which allow students to gain an academic qualification while getting practical experience and full-time pay, without the student debt.
I’ve also seen first-hand how such approaches can benefit the businesses who participate in such schemes. My Technical Apprenticeship was at an injection moulding company called LINPAC Automotive. At LINPAC there were large machines with up to about 3,000 tonnes clamp force and 16kgs of plastics processing capability. They often struggled to recruit because candidates were daunted by the size and scale of the machinery. Therefore, LINPAC actively developed their people through apprenticeships and training programmes to ensure that they had the right skills that were available at the right time and specific to their needs. This worked especially well for the big revenue projects and infrastructure within the business.
Skills development is business-critical
It is crucial for businesses to be more innovative and to move dynamically to ensure that they are competitive, especially in the current social and economic climate. One of the biggest challenges I see with businesses is the reduced level of technical knowledge and expertise in their workforce. Over many years, I've observed a deterioration in the skill level of staff in UK organisations, apprenticeships have been decimated, and structured training programs are replaced with ‘learn as you go’ or ‘train when it's critical’ which has led to the rise of button-pushers rather than technical capable engineers. This is leaving an ever-widening skills gap that must be addressed for businesses to compete in the global market.
Most small businesses look to recruit and buy skills in rather than developing their existing workforce. The skills marketplace is limited, especially with school, college and university leavers having limited work-based experience, coupled with the fact that the talent pool is finite.
Businesses looking to innovate and tackle technological challenges might be limited by what skills are available in their existing workforce. My view is that if you're going to take on a substantial project, as a revenue earner for the next five years, business leaders need to resource it with the right skills required to undertake and address the technological challenges. In this way, not only do they maintain revenue streams but can develop them further and get more saleable, innovative products or services into the marketplace, ideally with new customers. Businesses need to look at what skills they have internally, but also consider what they need to do to upskill their workforce.
Skills are also an important factor in succession planning. If a business has a workforce which is over a certain age, what plans are they making to replace and improve on those skills? I'm surprised by the number of businesses in which only one person can do a certain function and to me, that's a very risky strategy. If that skilled individual retires or decides to leave, or go to a competitor, that business no longer has a viable product or process. Either upskilling other members of the team or deskilling specific tasks becomes ever more critical and should not be ignored.
The UK labour market is in a prolonged period of change, and globalisation has increased competition for UK businesses, while simultaneously creating new markets and opportunities. Increasing automation of sophisticated tasks, particularly using new technologies, could displace many jobs while creating demand for others. The UK population, while still growing, is ageing, reducing the ratio of workers to retirees so that productivity will need to rise if output and living standards are to be maintained. Skills can be acquired through education systems, through training, self-directed learning and experience of the workplace. They include skills recognised through academic and other qualifications as well as organisational and leadership.
WMG's Internship Programme has been running for 10 years and has been highly successful. It certainly makes me think about my past as an apprentice. The interns are young, intelligent and keen, and definitely in the right place to gain hands-on engineering experience while delivering tangible benefits for their SME businesses. While embedded in the business, interns are supported by WMG’s experts, some of whom have worked in the industry for many years, passing this knowledge and expertise onto the new generation.
Although attitudes are changing, young people today tend to feel they have no choice but to go to university, feeling that they will struggle on the job market without a degree. Even after leaving university today, students are expected to already have hands-on experience – an unrealistic expectation. At WMG, we are shaking the stereotype of interns just making the tea. Our dedicated and resourceful interns get stuck in straight away, working on a challenge specified by their sponsor company, covering everything from product design to process improvement.
For UK manufacturing to remain competitive and innovative, embracing new skills and upskilling existing staff is going to be even more critical to long-term viability. We must put the trust back into young enthusiastic engineers and give them the space to develop their skills and help overcome our future challenges.
To contact Kylash, please email him on K.Makenji@warwick.ac.uk.
Article originally featured in WMG's SME Newsletter here.