Desperately seeking that special someone

7 mins read

From unreliable to just plain unpleasant, almost half of UK manufacturers have fired a misfit employee in the past year, WM's People & Productivity survey reveals.

The title reads WM People & Productivity survey but the sentiment is straight out of a lonely hearts column: busy professional WLTM bright, articulate and enthusiastic individual aged 16-24 for LTR. Skills shortages continue to break the heart of UK manufacturing, the research shows. Three-quarters of sites are still pining for a special someone, with attempts to find them leading to a string of dating disasters. No shows, arguments, a devil-may-care attitude – factories have a general capacity for attracting the wrong sort, the survey reveals. Almost 50% have had to sack an employee in the past year. Critical job errors are by far the most common trigger for manufacturing managers to act like Sir Alan. It's a tragic reflection of the recruitment conundrum encountered by many UK manufacturers. There are essential jobs that desperately need to be filled, but a desperate shortage of candidates with the essential skills to fill them. Operation epicentre And this is not a problem of highly technical engineering positions. The epicentre of the skills shortage is, in fact, skilled shopfloor employees. Forty per cent say a shortage of adept operators and their ilk are their biggest problem compared to 36% craving experienced engineers. One frustrated site manager summed it up thus: "We have an inability of skilled shopfloor personnel to find solutions to basic engineering problems". Just 11% note any improvement in either their shopfloor or engineering stock in the past year. The drought is unleashing some serious damage. Around 44% say skills shortages have been a direct cause of profit-draining downtime in the past year, with 16% regularly forced to pull production because of a lack of suitably trained people. Postcards from the factory floor would have economists reaching for the smelling salts. "We've turned work away due to lack of workforce experience," confessed one respondent. "Our machines have stood idle waiting for the next shift when specific skills became available," and "lines stopped awaiting skilled technicians", explained others. Despite these skills difficulties, UK manufacturing has just recorded its strongest growth rate in two years, according to industry barometer the PMI index. Just think how much more the sector might have given to UK plc, as the International Monetary Fund boosted its growth forecast for the economy to 0.9% for 2013. To be fair, the fact doesn't appear to be completely lost on the government. The year 2013 has brought a £213 million Advanced Manufacturing Supply Chain Initiative to help address skills shortages in aerospace and automotive. David Cameron has also announced a bid to deliver 100,000 additional engineering technicians by 2018. Both are worthy initiatives, but it's dubious whether either has the firepower to fix a skills problem that has plagued UK industry for three decades. What could pack a bigger punch is more generous state aid for factories to take on apprentices. Despite their skills woes, a disturbing 38% of sites said they had no plans to recruit an apprentice this year. Cost was named by 26% as the biggest deterrent to a youth policy, with the lacklustre quality of applicants putting off 36% of respondents. Currently, qualifying manufacturing SMEs can net £1,500 per apprentice recruited under an AGE 16-24 grant. An unemployed 16-24 year old costs the UK taxpayer around £15,000 a year in benefits and lost economic productivity, according to official figures. The maths suggest the treasury could offer more and still make a healthy saving for the state, not to mention the corresponding economic value add. Boosting grants to, say, £5,000 per manufacturer might make all the difference for a small company trying to cobble together a typical apprentice salary of £13,100. The right character Apprentice recruits don't have to be Isambard Kingdom Brunel II. Enthusiasm and commitment were by far the top attributes factories are looking for during interview, the survey shows. Numeracy and interpersonal skills are also critical, but actual technical and design skills less so. The findings suggest many businesses believe they can mould the finished article providing the raw materials are of sufficient quality. Credit again to the government, which is working hard to raise the standards. There has been recognition from Westminster of a softening of the education system, which has contributed to poor literacy and numeracy. GCSEs will shift from modular coursework to full exams and a 1-8 grading system within two years. Ministers also plan a boot camp style pre-apprenticeship course to improve maths and English skills among school leavers aged 16. That good work deserves to be supplemented with a more adventurous policy on apprenticeships. The industry suffers from a well-documented shortage of SMEs prepared to hire. Boosting incentives for businesses to grow their own would eliminate growth-sapping shutdowns because of skill shortages. And a generation of school leavers could also go into a rewarding career, rather than face a disheartening spell in the dole queue. But while we wait for George Osborne to have an epiphany, there's plenty the industry could be doing itself to alleviate skills concerns. Talent development and training is certainly the dominant topic at management meetings, according to the research findings. Succession planning, employee engagement and maintaining morale all hog the attention spans of site managers. Very few said management had to consider employee churn or widespread retirement, which may explain the reticence of over a third of respondents to spend on apprentices just yet. If only... You can't help concluding that many manufacturers might just be their own worst enemies – frustrated by the skills gap but sufficiently stoic to grin and bear it. Consider this: had a respondent to our first People & Productivity survey in 2009 taken on an apprentice there and then, the individual would now have the engineering skills that, four years later, respondents are still saying they desperately lack. However, the manufacturing workforce that is in place looks a largely happy one. Almost 60% reported better than average morale, with just 11% noting an employee base in pessimistic mood. It's hard not to picture a decent skilled shopfloor operator or engineer in delirium. The prospect of resilient order books and too many jobs for too few people should trigger the equivalent euphoria to a king-size canister of laughing gas. Site management won't be seeing the funny side, though, as they ponder business operations five to 10 years down the line. Almost 35% of factories have an average employee age of 45-plus, with nearly one in 10's typical employee a fifty-something. There's no reason why the growing band of manufacturing veterans can't be relied upon in the short term. But ultimately there comes a time when we all crave a companion with whom to build a better future. Bear it in mind the next time the investment budget meeting covers the case for hiring an apprentice. And meanwhile, let's hope Cupid can find his mark within those cramped Westminster corridors, the classrooms and from behind the dinner table where mum and dad discuss what Fred and Mary should be when they grow up. Key findings in numbers 1% talent development and training top management concern 49% have fired an employee in the past year, with critical job errors the top factor 44% have suffered downtime because of a lack of skills 75% suffering from skill shortages Methodology 117 senior managers and decision-makers from a range of manufacturing sites responded to WM's People & Productivity report. The sample included representatives from sectors such as plastics & rubber, general mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, pharmaceuticals and automotive. Respondents came from companies large and small, from those employing over 500 to those with fewer than 50. The number cruncher... Don't mention the duvet Maybe it was the squawk of seagulls in the background or the strange correlation with a crucial cup-tie for United, but most managers suspect at least one person in their workforce has pulled a sickie at some point. Just 5% of respondents – either hugely trusting or utterly gullible – said they believed nobody on their books had attempted a duvet day in the past year. A paranoid 1% suspected between three quarters and all of their workers of taking unauthorised sick leave. Now where did I put the abacus? As the world embraces smartphones, tablets and 3D printing, it's nice to know you can rely on some technophobes to keep fighting the good fight for all things old fashioned. The factory is a haven for such philistines, according to the survey. Around 12% of manufacturers shun ERP, IT and anything involving an on-switch to monitor their workforce patterns, preferring good old pen and paper, the report found. Like a Rolling Stone There's at least one factory out there whose employee line up resembles a Rolling Stones tribute act. One respondent indicated an average workforce age of over 55, which is on the high side even for an industry familiar with a more mature worker. Maybe they're on to something, though: think of the PPE savings with all those hearing aids and the extra mobility scooters you could pack in the car park. Tears, tantrums and tiaras Forget the cop shop, a factory would make a much more dramatic setting for TV's next fly on the wall shockumentary. Slanging matches between managers and employees, physical assaults, fraud and internet misuse were all reported by survey respondents. All were deemed unacceptable in a manufacturing environment and sparked dismissal of the offender. The good life Breakdowns, skill shortages and getting the product out on time – life in charge of the manufacturing site has its moments. But with the average manager pocketing £42,200 and more than likely to have soaring morale, there's plenty to celebrate about your chosen career path. Those earnings put you more than £15,000 above the national average and above IT professionals, quantity surveyors and biochemists in the salary stakes. And how many of those professionals earning much more than you can look at themselves in the mirror, like you do, and say they get a serious kick out of their work? And finally... The best comments left by survey respondents: "We're frustrated by the inability of shopfloor personnel to find solutions to basic engineering problems." "We have had occasions recently where people who came to us as supposedly skilled CNC operators struggled when faced with something different or challenging." "There have been instances of damage caused by a lack of appreciation of process and assumed competence rather than explicit competence." "The site has suffered downtime because the only employee with the required skills was away on holiday." "We have had a lack of resource to keep on top of the important projects, leading to equipment downtime as some other areas are neglected." "There have been several occasions where engineers and middle managers are covering multiple roles and, as a result, planned maintenance activities have suffered."