Nurturing talent in the manufacturing sector

I recently posted an article on LinkedIn from “The Engineer” outlining the best way to get a job in engineering post graduation.

 

The comments below the article from graduates struggling to find work resonated with me. The common theme that emerged and that was holding the graduates back was a lack of industrial experience. This, in an industry that is perpetually stating that key skills shortages are a major barrier to growth.

 

Having recently assisted in a recruitment exercise for a position at a manufacturing company we found that many, very suitable candidates were ineligible due to a complete lack of any shop floor experience. I would add that this was essential for the role.

 

It was saddening to see that many had no manufacturing experience and had mostly worked in retail. Of course this does show an admirable work ethic, working long and unsociable hours and the ability to engage with customers face to face but it would mean that they were ill prepared for the work in hand.

 

So one has to ask why had these young people not obtained experience? Some had completed engineering degrees without any industrial placement constituent within company. This obviously would have helped. It’s well known that “sandwich” degrees do usually result in creating opportunity for work post-graduation. Some had also received little help in building a CV from the careers support staff. None had completed holiday internships.

 

Of course there are other schemes that work around University study to create a link between undergraduates and business. Most schools try to place 16 year olds in a week of internship before GCSEs.

 

The “Year in Industry” scheme is a great way of students taking a year out before University to work full time in engineering and manufacturing businesses. Having been a judge for many years at their “contribution to the business” awards, I have seen some amazing results achieved by young people, working in a supportive environment, that question the status quo and go on to make real change in the business. The development of new IP and the cost savings on the shop floor are incredible. I remember a young Steph McGovern of BBC fame collecting an award for her work on six sigma at Black and Decker.

 

The Arkwright Scholarship is another scheme that sifts out the elite of under 16s to support them in their sixth forms studies on the way to an engineering degree. Having tried some of the past papers when my son obtained a scholarship I can confirm that they aren’t easy!

 

The beauty of both schemes is that suitable candidates go through a vigorous process before acceptance onto the scheme. This takes a huge burden off of the participating business. I would add that there are many other schemes operating in this space.

 

However one of the key things that hold these schemes and others back is a lack of industrial engagement and support. The Year in Industry scheme works incredibly hard to obtain placement positions from businesses. It should not be that hard to sell, as the benefits are obvious. Additionally when my son obtained his Arkwright scholarship approximately half of the scholars were supported by charitable trusts and Livery companies. Not the businesses that need this talent.

 

It seems bizarre that rather than cultivating talent, businesses enter the merry-go-round of expensive graduate recruitment rather than getting familiar with students at an early age.

 

It’s interesting to note that the service sector, by and large, is committed to the concept of internships and works hard to remove barriers. Of course one cannot condone the year-long unpaid internships that in some sectors have been acceptable. They are both exploitative of the individual and perpetuate internships being the reserve of the well off who can subsidise their children. Some larger engineering companies support internships but most SMEs are not engaged.

 

Two weeks, to at the most a month, should be the length of any unpaid internships. If they are unpaid they should always be expensed.

 

Many service companies find space for interns in the summer holidays, reserve useful projects for them to be engaged with and give the interns appropriate support. Longer internships will pay the living wage or expenses. Unfortunately it’s still true that many of these opportunities come from the networks of parents or friends of parents and that doesn’t help those that aren’t as well connected. At least however, there is a volume of these positions that gives the service sector businesses a real chance to attract and perhaps more importantly evaluate talent for the long term. This means that they are often ahead of the game at recruiting numerate, reasoning, engineering graduates.

 

So what can manufacturing businesses, particularly SMEs do to break the circle and help young people gain experience?

 

  • Remove internal barriers to taking on interns (Health and Safety, just too difficult to do etc)
  • Create a space on the company website where young people can express an interest in working with the company in some way.
  • Engage with schools and accept local 16 year olds for short term work experience (perhaps start by connecting with Teentech)
  • Engage with apprentice schemes and FE colleges to provide industrial experience
  • Log and keep a file of interesting things that would be useful to do for the company but you are just too busy to do (a young person would devour these)
  • Consider adopting a scheme such as Year In Industry and Arkwright Scholarships to tap into the talent pool (there are others)
  • Talk to a University about taking a “sandwich” student, an intern for the summer break or even suggesting topics for final year projects. Even better if you can find a University that conducts research into your technology of interest.
  • Use networks such as EEF, IoD engineering institutions, and social media, including LinkedIn, to promote the fact that they are open to internships.
  • Consider sponsoring students through higher education
  • Support apprentices through Degree Apprenticeships or day release study

 

There are other ways I’m sure and I look forward to hearing constructive comments.

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One Response to Nurturing talent in the manufacturing sector

  1. Very sound observations David with some great suggestions. I echo your comments about the difference across the sectors in terms of welcoming young talent.

    What also resonates is the value of that experiental learning, not least on the soft skills which are so often the focus of criticism when young talent arrives with no work experience.

    Your observations and suggestions about mini projects are spot on – not only do they offer that experiential learning opportunity, but experience shows that such activities can also yield benefits which self finance the investment. A real win win situation.

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