All sySTEMs go: Getting ready for the next generation

3 mins read

The pandemic has highlighted the importance of careers in areas such as scientific research and engineering, prompting renewed interest in STEM skills attainment. So, as the UK manufacturing industry gears up for recovery in the year ahead, is it ready to capitalise on this opportunity to nurture STEM talent and make use of new incentives for hiring apprentices, asks Caroline Milton, manufacturing specialist at accountancy firm, Menzies LLP.

There is no doubt about it, each and every sector has felt the effects of the pandemic. The most watertight of business plans have been put to the test and many businesses have had no choice but to innovate to maintain revenue levels. For example, some manufacturing companies have been forced to incorporate new technology and robotics into their factories to keep up pre-pandemic levels of production, while adhering to social distancing regulations.

This has led to many manufacturers considering ways to streamline processes and reduce costs. Many have reviewed their organisational structure and taken steps to reduce headcount where it’s been possible to do so, while making way for more automation. Although, some employers have had to utilise the Government’s Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS), this can create opportunities to develop and upskill staff who have been placed on furlough. Employees on furlough can undertake training and upskill themselves enabling them to add more value to the business and potentially to be relocated to other roles protecting their jobs from the impact of automation.

By placing a focus on reskilling in this way, manufacturing companies are able to demonstrate a level of commitment and loyalty to their workers. Rather than a ‘boom and bust’ sector, employees have come to associate manufacturing with stability and progression. This is something that should be maintained, even after the CJRS comes to an end in March. With orders still slow and with the end of the Brexit transition period just weeks away, it is essential that confidence in the sector continues to grow, to ensure it secures its place as one of the country’s most vital industries.

For businesses with fewer than 50 employees, increased financial support from the Government has presented an opportunity to re-evaluate their business models and address any weak points or skills gaps in their workforce. For those employing an apprentice aged 16-18, or 19-24 and in the care of local authority on or an EHC plan, the Government will fund the total cost of apprenticeship training. Industry bodies such as the Manufacturing Technologies Association (MTA), are also providing apprenticeship grants and loans for members with less than £10m turnover. With grants of up to £4,000, SMEs should make use these financial springboards to strengthen their business models, at the same time as supporting those coming through education to gain experience in different areas.

While manufacturing once revolved around practical, manual work, it has evolved to become a more technical, high-value career path. In recent years, there has been a push from the Government to change employers’ views on apprenticeships, positioning them as the future of STEM skills development. The coronavirus pandemic has helped to highlight the importance of STEM subjects; however, it has also stifled the amount of apprenticeships being advertised. March to July 2020 saw a 46 percent decrease in the number of apprenticeship starters, compared to the same period last year.

In order to boost apprenticeships on a local level, a partnership approach is key. Manufacturing companies should be harnessing relationships with schools and colleges and engaging with skilled individuals at an early stage. In 2019/20, 62.2 percent of apprentices were aged 25 and over, highlighting the need for guidance at a pre-university level. By holding career days to promote their own schemes, manufacturing companies can educate the next generation of STEM talent - advising them on the qualifications needed to enter the industry and what to expect in terms of their day-to-day experience.

At a higher education level, the Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP) provides companies with an opportunity to partner with an academic institution, which is part grant-funded. Manufacturing companies can use the scheme to introduce new skills and to gain access to the latest academic thinking on their strategic model. While there is a cost for businesses, such partnerships can enrich their research base and reduce the cost of ongoing R&D.

By end of 2020, all manufacturers should be aiming to have plans in place to make use of Government incentives. This will create more apprenticeships and, in doing so, help to lay the foundation for the next generation. As the backbone of the UK, the manufacturing sector must take pride in what it and what it produces, both in terms of goods and talent, particularly in times of uncertainty.