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How solving the skills gap could revitalise UK manufacturing

1 October 2021

by Paul Lewis, Operations Director at Universal Wolf – leaders in complex metal fabrication.


As A-level results reached a record high, attention turns once again to the education system – and the extent to which it prepares the next generation for the future. The UK has one of the highest university attendance rates in the world. However, it also has significant skills gaps in technical areas such as manufacturing. New research has found that the engineering and manufacturing industry is the worst affected by the skills shortage. 85 percent of businesses are now feeling the strain from a lack of skilled workers.


Closing the gap


The manufacturing skills shortage is a growing concern. With more and more schools incentivised to promote further education rather than vocational learning, there is a risk that not enough people will be trained in highly skilled manufacturing roles. Not only does this create skills shortages that affect a range of industries, but it also generates slower economic growth overall.


In the 1990s, skills shortages existed but the effects were less pronounced. Often, raw materials and components were imported from overseas for assembly in the UK. Many jobs existed just to assemble goods on behalf of overseas manufacturers. There was no shortage of labour. But times have changed. The UK is now leading the world in increasingly sophisticated manufacturing projects. And skills shortages in the UK are a real issue for businesses. As more students choose higher education rather than vocational education, we are seeing skills gaps widen as the demand for highly skilled workers grows.


New skills for a new era


One of the primary reasons for the gap is that UK manufacturing firms are leading on increasingly complex projects. These projects often require highly skilled professionals with wide ranging experience.


At Universal Wolf, we see the growing demand for skilled manufacturers first-hand.  We have seen increased demand for more complex services such as new product introduction and design for manufacturing. And we have been fortunate to be able to recruit and train many apprentices over the years. Our apprenticeships offer young people a practical route into a career. And it’s not just welding, bending and profiling that our young recruits learn. It’s also teamwork, leadership and critical thinking – and there will always be someone there to lend a helping hand. The variety of the role means that every day brings new challenges and opportunities.


Training for success


We can help to solve the skill shortage as a growing business. But we need the government and the education system to play its part. The good news is that progress is being made. British manufacturing body Make UK offers excellent technical training courses. And a group of 20 MPs recently signed a motion calling for the Government to put manufacturing-centric skills at the heart of the National Curriculum. That includes skills such as metalwork that can lead to fulfilling careers in highly skilled jobs. But we still have a gap that will require 186,000 skilled individuals to be hired every year until 2024. And we will need a collective effort from industry and government to close the deficit. If we can get a strong pipeline of new recruits into the manufacturing industry, there is huge potential for the sector to grow.


Britain has always been a manufacturing powerhouse and the UK is already one of the most productive countries in Europe for manufacturing. But skills shortages are becoming a real challenge. The UK has, up until now, thrived despite its skills shortages – but recent trends could see this change if we don’t take action and address the skills gap today. At Universal Wolf, we are ready to help solve the problem. But we can’t do it alone. We need collective action to ensure that UK manufacturing – and the next generation – can reach their full potential.

Universal Wolf Operations Director Paul Lewis

By Paul Lewis, Operations Director at Universal Wolf.  Paul is a qualified Mechanical Engineer and joined us with a background in lean manufacturing, gained through roles within Oil & Gas, Automotive and Construction. He leads our manufacturing teams in championing systems and processes for operational excellence.