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Addressing England's skills puzzle: Manufacturing the future workforce

Addressing England's skills puzzle: Manufacturing the future workforce

High Value Manufacturing Catapult

4 min read Partner content

The UK’s workforce development system must ensure that people with the right skills are available, in the right place at the right time, writes Ian Collier, Workforce Development Leader at the High Value Manufacturing Catapult.


The publication, yesterday, of the Skills Commission’s report ‘England’s Skills Puzzle: Piecing Together Further Education, Training and Employment, is a welcome contribution to an important challenge that faces all parts of the UK.  The availability of a well-educated, trained and agile workforce is fundamental to every successful business not least because it is a vital ingredient for the world-leading, market-capturing innovation we talk so much about, and to the deployment and exploitation of new technologies and infrastructure. Few could disagree with the report’s call to see further education and skills and human capital as a macroeconomic priority nor the need for action if we are to deliver a workforce ready to use new technologies and fit for a challenging future. 

The UK has recognised for decades that it has a real advanced engineering and manufacturing skills challenge and, despite many well-meaning reviews and a plethora of initiatives, manufacturers report both current shortfalls and anticipated future shortages of key skills. The emerging grand challenges such as sustainability, mobility, energy systems and an ageing population allied with the growing complexity of engineering and manufacturing solutions associated with emerging and data-rich technologies, will require different skills sets from today. Our ability to respond to these challenges is compromised without a systematic response to workforce development that respects and invests in the people who make up our ‘renewable human assets’ and who are vital to the UK’s future economic and social well-being.

The rapid pace of technological change demands more modular and flexible delivery that can be used to upskill and reskill the existing workforce – who, in most cases are those who will initially deliver the impacts of innovation. The UK’s workforce development system must ensure that people with the right skills are available, in the right place at the right time, thereby responding to the needs of industry and delivering lifelong opportunities for individuals. 

This will be critical for the UK’s future industrial success and a failure to undertake workforce development in a systematic way will mean missing out on opportunities to build the UK’s manufacturing base and to take leading positions in global markets.

The UK skills landscape in which this must be achieved, as the Skills Commission report recognises, is fragmented and historically unstable, with a long record of widely acknowledged under-funding of vocational, technical and professional education. Coordinated investment, over extended timescales, by national and local government across business and education domains, is now required to reverse this and to attract the necessary commitment and investment from industry and individuals in their own success.

In 2019, the High Value Manufacturing Catapult worked with partners from the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) and TWI and support from the Gatsby Foundation, to identify and capture the world’s best practice on the development of the future workforce. What we found, drove a simple conclusion: if we want to seize the full value of the UK’s outstanding research and innovation,  we need to bridge the gap between our educators and those driving development of the new technologies that will define the future skills we need – our centres of innovation have a crucial role to play in both informing course content and educating the educators in the emerging technologies.  More than that, if we focus solely on those percolating up through the education system the UK will always lag its competitors.  A modern and effective approach to skills development must embrace today’s workforce as well as looking to those making their way through our schools.  That will mean stepping away from the constraints of long training programmes away from the workplace and moving towards more modular training and lifelong learning models. Centres of innovation and industry can lead the way. But the UK can only succeed if government stakeholders, industry and academia work together with a common purpose to equip the UK’s future workforce.

To read our full report click here.

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