The Covid-19 pandemic and Brexit have magnified the importance of careers in areas such as scientific research and engineering, renewing interest in STEM skills attainment. As we leave the EU, is the UK manufacturing industry ready to capitalise on the opportunity to nurture STEM talent and make use of new incentives for hiring apprentices?
Impact of Covid-19
Almost every sector continues to be impacted by the pandemic. Even the most robust of business plans have been tested, leaving businesses looking to innovate or diversify to maintain revenue levels. For instance, some manufacturing companies have been forced to incorporate robotics into their factories. This reduces human contact, allowing companies to adhere to social distancing rules whilst maintaining production levels.
Reducing costs for the business
The impact of Covid-19 has led many manufacturers to considering ways to streamline factory processes and reduce costs. Some manufacturers have reviewed their organisational structure and reduced headcount where possible, allowing more capacity for automation. Some businesses have also taken advantage of the Government’s Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS). The CJRS scheme has provided an opportunity to develop and upskill staff while on furlough. Furloughed employees are able to spend their time training or re-training. This not only benefits the business but also allows the individual to upskill themselves, potentially enabling them to be relocated to other roles, protecting their jobs from the impact of automation.
Benefits of upskilling
By focusing on upskilling their workforce, employers can demonstrate loyalty to their employees and retain their workforce. Manufacturing was once known for being ‘boom and bust’ but the sector has held a level of stability for some time, even throughout the current uncertain climate. Even after the CJRS comes to an end in April, this reputation should be maintained. With orders still slow and with the end of the Brexit transition period looming, it is essential that confidence in the sector continues to increase, to ensure manufacturing maintains its position as one of the country’s most vital industries.
Increased support from the Government has created several opportunities for companies:
- Financial support continues to be available for companies with 1-50 employees, creating opportunities to evaluate their business models. Any weak points or skills gaps in their workforce can be then addressed.
- For businesses 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 are also providing apprenticeship grants and loans for members with less than £10m turnover. With grants of up to £4,000, small businesses should make use these financial springboards to strengthen their business models, whilst supporting individuals coming through education with experience.
In the past, manufacturing mainly entailed manual work. Over the years, it has evolved to become a more technical, high-value career path. The government are looking to change more outdated employers’ views on apprenticeships, positioning them as the future of STEM skills development. Both Brexit and the pandemic has highlighted the importance of nurturing home-grown STEM skills, although the overall number of opportunities advertised have decreased. There was a 46% decrease in the number of apprenticeship starters from January to March 2020, compared to the same period last year.
A partnership approach is key to boosting apprenticeships locally. Manufacturing businesses should develop relationships with schools and colleges, engaging talented individuals at an early level. In 2019-20, 62.2% of apprentices were aged 25 and over, highlighting the need for guidance at a pre-university level. By promoting apprenticeship schemes at career days, businesses can publicise their schemes and advise on what qualifications are relevant.
In addition, targeting individuals at a higher level of education, Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP) can provide companies with an opportunity to partner with an academic institution, which is partly grant funded. This can be used to introduce new skills and gain access to current academic thinking. Though there is a cost for businesses, such partnerships can enrich their research base and reduce the cost of ongoing R&D.
All manufacturers should now be making use of available Government incentives. This will create more apprenticeships and help to lay the foundation for the next generation. In these uncertain times, manufacturing has continued to be the backbone of the UK. It is essential that this continues and the sector takes pride in what it produces and the skills it develops. This will encourage and support the new generation of talented individuals with STEM skills.