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Mind the (skills) gap

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As the UK economy begins to regain balance in the wake of the pandemic, Mike Burke, newly elected AMHSA President and Operations Director for E&K Automation, considers whether the logistics automaton sector has the engineering skills it needs.

Mike Burke.jpgWith digitalisation continuing at pace – as companies increasingly exploit technologies such as the IoT, augmented reality and artificial intelligence – and the pandemic having fuelled the growth of e-com, the outlook is extremely bright for logistics automation. The labour-intensive order profile and high return rate of e-com, coupled with labour shortages exacerbated by Brexit, is leading many companies to invest in automation in order to increase efficiency, reduce costs and enhance customer service.

Attracting talent

This is great news for members of the Automated Material Handling Systems Association (AMHSA) but begs the question: do we have sufficient engineers to meet demand? There undoubtedly continues to be a shortage of new talent coming into the sector, due partly to ignorance and partly to negative perceptions of engineering that prevail. Attracting young people into engineering requires the provision of information to change these perceptions, both among the young people themselves and among their influencers (parents, teachers and, no doubt, social media stars).

One of the organisations doing great work to transform the profile of engineering is the not-for-profit, EngineeringUK, which aims to inspire and engage the next generation via a range of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) programmes including Big Bang and Robotics Challenge. In its report last year entitled Educational Pathways into Engineering, EngineeringUK found a depressing lack of awareness about engineering, with 47% of 11- to 19-year-olds saying that they knew little or almost nothing about what engineers do.

A number of changes are underway at once in UK technical education, which – combined with the impact of the pandemic – means it may be difficult to assess their impact for some time. The past few years have seen new apprenticeship standards, the apprenticeship levy on large employers, the launch of Institutes of Technology and – in September 2020 – the introduction of T level qualifications.

T Levels

Following GCSE studies and being equivalent to 3 A levels, T Levels are 2-year courses that have been developed in collaboration with employers. Offering a mix of classroom learning and ‘on-the-job’ experience, T Levels are being rolled out in a range of subjects that include Engineering, Manufacturing, Processing and Control; Design and Development for Engineering and Manufacturing; and Maintenance, Installation and Repair for Engineering and Manufacturing. Though these new qualifications are to be welcomed, it is worrying that EngineeringUK's report found that FE colleges struggle to attract sufficiently qualified engineering teachers, with 74% of college principals ranking it as the most difficult subject to recruit for. In addition, some businesses have pointed to the fact that technical and safety demands in the engineering sector may prove a barrier to the delivery of the industry placements required for T levels.

At degree level, engineering and technology entries at first-degree undergraduate level increased by 6% between 2009/2010 and 2018/2019 but this figure was lower than the overall increase in first-degree entries across higher education.

Apprenticeships

There is a slightly more positive picture when it comes to apprenticeships. Engineering-related apprenticeships in England increased by 4% in the academic year 2018/2019 compared to the previous year, although there was an overall decrease of 4% since 2014/2015. However, engineering has faired better than average. Apprenticeship starts across all subjects in the year 2018/2019 increased by 5% year-on-year but fell overall by a whopping 21% since 2014/2015, with the largest fall coming immediately after the introduction of the apprenticeship levy.

Diversity

The elephant in the engineering room is undoubtedly diversity. Women and people from minority ethnic backgrounds are hugely underrepresented in engineering education, training and employment. In apprenticeships, for example, in 2018/2019 women accounted for only 8% of starts in engineering and manufacturing, while those from BAME backgrounds accounted for another 8% (compared to 13% of the population). This imbalance then feeds into employment, where only 12% of the engineering workforce are women and only 8% are from a minority ethnic backgrounds.

AMHSA's role

AMHSA continues to champion the recruitment and training of talent to bridge the skills gap in the automated logistics sector, with our flagship activity being the AMHSA apprenticeship programme. Now in its seventh year, the scheme is operated in association with car manufacturer, Toyota. Apprentices from AMHSA member companies take part in a four-year programme that begins with two years of learning engineering skills at the Toyota Academy in Burnaston, Derbyshire, followed by the opportunity to acquire industry-specific skills with the member company. Despite disruption last year due to Covid-19, a total of 27 apprentices have completed the AMHSA apprenticeship programme since it began. The impact is wider, however, as some members have participated in the AMHSA scheme, gained confidence and then launched their own in-house programme. The AMHSA scheme is particularly attractive to smaller companies that cannot match the state-of-the-art engineering facilities available at Burnaston.

Spreading the word

Spreading the message about how interesting and rewarding a career in engineering can be begins, like most things, at grass roots. So, if you're an engineer, please consider what you can do to engage with your local school or college to enhance the profile of our industry and inspire the next generation of engineers.

The full EngineeringUK report on Educational Pathways into Engineering can be read here.

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As the UK’s leading authority on automated material handling with over 60 members, AMHSA seeks to accelerate the adoption of world-class intralogistics automation across the UK supply chain. Visit www.amhsa.co.uk, call 07517 610514 or email secretary@amhsa.co.uk.

 

 

 

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