Latest Issue

Today’s manufacturing workforce challenge

If UK manufacturers are to succeed in the fiercely competitive global market place, Britain will need a skills strategy that is more joined up at the national level

By Paul Shakspeare  

Photo: TNS/SIPA USA/PA Images

This article was produced in association with HMV Catapult

Talented people are the backbone of every successful business. As the UK faces up to potentially dramatic changes in its economic landscape and the risks and opportunities that flow from new technologies, it has never been more important for manufacturing companies to have access to a sustainable supply of recruits with the right skills—and to develop their current workforce with the skills necessary to translate business strategy into the healthy returns that fuel our prosperity.

But in manufacturing there’s a problem. The UK faces a critical shortfall in the supply of the engineering skills our businesses need. According to EEF research, 73 per cent of manufacturers say they struggle to recruit skilled people and that access to technical skills is a particular challenge. Their experience is borne out by the research. Engineering UK’s 2016 report points to an annual shortfall of 29,000 people with level 3 skills and 40,000 with level 4+ skills and doubts our education system will be able to meet forecast demand for skilled engineers and technicians by 2022. If UK manufacturers are to succeed in fiercely competitive global markets, we need a solution that not only responds to the current backlog of demand but can meet future needs more effectively by re-training our current workforce and bringing people with the right skills into the recruitment marketplace when and where our employers need them.

Government action on skills provides a partial solution. It addresses pre-existing and underlying low levels of employer interest and engagement in developing (as opposed to hiring) a skilled workforce. The Apprenticeship Levy has stimulated some change in company behaviours—although arguably not for the long tail of smaller businesses which continue to struggle to navigate a complex skills system. Local skills panels will provide an improved platform for engagement and to influence funding that addresses historical underinvestment in the “means of skills delivery” at the local level. All of this is welcome, but until we take a more national and connected view of manufacturing skills needs—and how best to fulfil them—there remains a very real risk that we will fail to deliver the workforce our manufacturing employers need.

A nation-level perspective will allow us to direct attention and resources in the most effective and efficient ways to meet those needs, reaping potential economies of scale and driving best practice across delivery channels and locations. Technology and innovation centres such as The High Value Manufacturing Catapult, along with other catapults and registered training organisations are uniquely positioned to take a view on the impact of emerging technologies to feed into national and local skills strategies. Greater collaboration across multiple education and training providers is required to improve national “training productivity” for the development of courses and their delivery to a common standard and with high quality across the UK. As well as providing greater financial viability, this will reduce lead times to deploy new training offers to meet local employer need from nationally available resources, suitable for both new learners and re-training.

Delivery of advanced manufacturing skills that enable UK industry to successfully exploit new technologies are an essential pillar of Industrial Strategy and fundamental to the mission of Catapults and RTOs. To answer this manufacturing skills challenge, we require a systematic approach to education and skills, technologies and supply chains, and local and national workforce needs, with all their complex connections and dependencies that have hindered previous isolated initiatives. The High Value Manufacturing Catapult is well placed to assist with the joining-up of many of these elements and to leverage the UK’s substantial investment in manufacturing technologies within its existing centres. This would deploy the latest manufacturing research in support of a reformed education and training system for advanced manufacturing sectors and will enable the wider skills network to respond to employers’ needs for a skilled workforce that underpins future UK industrial success.

Please visit for more information.

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to

More From Prospect