We’re all in it together
12 Oct 2010
Andrew Reynolds Smith on the power of apprenticeships in tackling skills shortages, education shortcomings and an industry with image issues; and why we all have a part to play. By Paul Fanning
Few would argue that Andrew Reynolds Smith isn't well placed for a birds-eye view of UK engineering and manufacturing.
A youthful looking 44, he's chairman of the CBI Manufacturing Council, divisional chief executive of one the UK's most successful engineering firms, GKN, and was a member of the last government's Ministerial Advisory Group for Manufacturing. Here, he talks to Engineering Apprentice about the importance of apprenticeships, education – and repackaging public perception.
Changing what we look for
With 250 years of technological innovation and manufacturing that spans making cannonballs for the Battle of Waterloo, Spitfires in WWII and composite wing structures for the Airbus A380, GKN began as a small South Wales ironworks and now employs more than 40,000 people in over 30 countries – growth it attributes to constantly innovating and, perhaps more importantly, welcoming change.
It's no surprise then that Reynolds Smith is calling for change: changes in skills delivery, public perception and sector strategy. That the country is facing a skills crisis in engineering and manufacturing, he has no doubt. His view is that outmoded perceptions of the industry, and failure to create a coherent message about the sector and its goals, are in dire need of re-engineering.
"There's a role to be played here by the manufacturers and engineers themselves, in terms of the way they present manufacturing," he comments. "But there's need for a clear vision on a national level that puts engineering and manufacturing at the heart of a balanced economy. We need to know how we want the economy to look, which, in turn, will drive an improvement in the public perception of manufacturing and engineering."
He believes the skills problem is structural, as well as perceptual, and points an accusing finger at the educational system. "There's an obvious need to encourage basic STEM skills. Those are the core of everything that follows, so there should a focus on developing those skills from the earliest age and a robust structure to promote them. This will create momentum, all the way forwards to the point when students make their own choices. We need to be able to inspire students to continue with STEM subjects. Students need to see how choosing STEM subjects gives them the potential to make a difference to the whole world."
The bigger picture
First-hand experience tells him that apprenticeships in UK engineering and manufacturing are on the up. "I spend a lot of time with manufacturers and engineering businesses. More and more, I'm hearing from the leaders of those businesses that they are considering strengthening or reintroducing apprenticeship schemes. It's a very powerful way of getting people into the workplace, and developing both academic and practical skills in parallel. Apprenticeships should be strongly supported and driven forward."
GKN itself has apprenticeship schemes in place across all of its UK businesses. However, Reynolds Smith stresses that, while having an apprenticeship scheme in place is one thing, ensuring it is effective and valuable is another. "A good apprenticeship scheme will be structured to provide exposure across each of the areas of the business. Once completed, an apprentice should have experienced a broad range of technical, functional and operational roles."
By building a ground-up understanding of what engineering and manufacturing is all about, apprentices get to see the bigger picture. "Manufacturing and engineering isn't just about making parts. It's about designing them, developing them, industrialising them, marketing them, distributing them. That's how you create value. Apprentices need to understand that: value comes from not just manufacturing, but the whole production stream."
It's also important for companies to recognise that different skills are needed for different areas of business. "It's a question of balance," he adds. "Skills are needed at all levels of business. Companies must ensure they have a pipeline of capability to deliver at all levels, whether that's ensuring an expensive piece of computer-controlled equipment on the shopfloor runs without breaking down or designing a composite wing structure. Businesses need to ensure they are cultivating the right skills, in the right areas."
While he's conscious that it isn't always easy for smaller companies to afford apprenticeship schemes, he feels there are more considerations for SMEs than just that. "There's a big contribution you're getting back from apprenticeships. SMEs need to look at the value they're getting from day one."
The recent Warwick Institute for Employment Research (IER) report, 'The Net Benefit to Employer Investment in Apprenticeship Training', backs him up. The report found that it can actually less expensive to run an apprenticeship scheme than recruiting and training experienced workers; apprentices often bring new ideas and innovation to the business; younger staff members ensure the business is prepared for retiring workers; businesses that recruit apprentices tend to have lower staff turnover; and apprentices will have skills and qualities specific to the business.
Getting off the ground
Reynolds Smith's entry into engineering was through what he calls a "classic apprenticeship," which involved both technical and economic challenges. "My apprenticeship provided an outstanding foundation for my development," he says, "and my career has taken off, because it gave me an appreciation for the 'grassroots' of manufacturing and technology – the basics of how you turn ideas into products, and products into value.
"It's impossible to forget that engineering is at the heart of everything we do. The fact that I'm not designing products now does not take away from the passion that I've got for the stuff that we make and the way we make it," he says. "It's something that I still love, because I can see the difference it makes."
As far as he's concerned, the sky is the limit for youngsters interested in manufacturing and engineering. "As an engineer, you've got a tremendous opportunity to affect the way the world is developing. Look at the challenges we have in reducing CO2 emissions or feeding an ever-increasing population - the solutions will come from engineered and manufactured products. There are engineering opportunities all over the world; as a career choice, your possibilities are limitless."
GKN Driveline Headquarters
This material is protected by Findlay Media copyright
See Terms and Conditions.
One-off usage is permitted but bulk copying is not.
For multiple copies contact
the sales team.