Rob Childe of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind Out-Law.com, said that the existing skills gap in the UK's manufacturing sector was a central theme of discussion at the EEF National Manufacturing Conference 2018, held in London on Tuesday.
In his speech at the conference, Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the UK's opposition Labour party, highlighted the fact that just 8% of engineers are female. He said it is "a matter of social justice" and "an economic imperative" to ensure the UK makes "use of the talents of everyone".
"Jeremy Corbyn drew attention to the fact that the proportion of engineers who are female is extremely low compared to in other sectors – he said, for example, that 43% of GPs and about half of all solicitors are women," Childe said. "There is therefore an opportunity for those in the manufacturing sector who want to attract a wider pool of talent and plug the skills gap to direct their efforts on making their workplace an attractive place to work for all, with a particular focus on driving up female representation with their workforce."
Corbyn acknowledged that businesses are "struggling to recruit workers with the right skills" and identified the challenges that the UK's exit from the EU might present to manufacturers in terms of attracting skilled workers to the sector in light of potential new restrictions on immigration.
This makes attracting female talent into jobs in the UK manufacturing sector a bigger imperative for businesses, Childe said.
The view among many conference delegates was that the UK government also needs to do more to help deliver the skills industry requires, he said.
"Brexit is having a significant impact on the sector, as in all parts of the economy," Childe said. "The sector clearly relies heavily on talent from across the EEA and beyond to carry out both skilled and unskilled work. With net immigration significantly down following Brexit, employers are increasingly looking at what steps they can take to support employees to stay within their organisation at a time when Britain is not a destination of choice for migrant workers."
"There was also a focus on training home grown talent to fill the gap left by migrant workers, but there was a widespread view that the apprenticeship levy and the new apprenticeships in general were failing to deliver the skilled workforce needed. We know that the take up rate for the apprenticeship levy is low. This has to be an area of focus for the current administration.
With Brexit on the horizon, manufacturers need to be "responsive to the ever-changing market conditions particularly in relation to recruiting and retaining individuals with the relevant technical skill set required for a diverse range of manufacturing roles", said Laura Starrett of Pinsent Masons, who attended a workshop panel discussion entitled 'Support and sustain your post-Brexit workforce' at the EEF's conference.
"It is hoped by many manufacturers that the new proposed 'T-levels' are recognised and respected as much as A-levels and will bring together the expertise of industry, employers and education specialists to develop a world class technical education system which delivers a generation of home-grown talent post-Brexit," Starrett said.
T-levels is the name that has been given by the media to the government’s planned overhaul of technical education. Between now and 2022, 15 new pathways will be developed in 15 sector areas where substantial technical training is required to progress into employment.
The Department for Education consultation on the implementation of T-level programmes closed on 8 February 2018. The government's response is still awaited.