The skills gap – often referenced, rarely understood

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The Skills Gap. Something that’s often referenced, but rarely understood. Al Dean thinks it’s time the mainstream media started to highlight the good in design and engineering and not rely upon old stereotypes and cliches
I live in the Midlands in the United Kingdom, specifically, Wolverhampton, founded in 984AD by Lady Wulfruna.

Since the industrial revolution this region has been, or rather was, the nation’s epicentre for manufacturing. Sheffield might have its steel and Stoke might have the pottery industry, but the Midlands is where the nation built its products and changed the world.

I think it’s pretty safe to say that the industry that was here has been decimated since the second world war. Wolverhampton was the centre for three things, bicycles, motorcycles and locks. Want an idea of scale? Between the late 1800s up to the 1970s, there were 200 manufacturers involved in two wheel transportation alone including Sunbeam and Villiers.

Since the 70s, things have been very different. Large scale manufacturing has all but disappeared. What remains is specialism. There’s still a lot of smaller scale manufacturing facilities here, such as the Newby Foundries just up the road who are doing interesting things with rapid prototype based casting processes.

There are aerospace component suppliers such as Smiths Aerospace still doing well. Then comes news of the new £350m Jaguar Land Rover engine assembly plant just north of the town.

There are also smaller practices in the area, Haughton Design, who we featured a few issues ago, is a smaller industrial design consultancy based just north.

So it’s clear that there’s design and manufacturing here still – and as a matter of fact, not doing too bad thanks!

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Dark satanic mills 2.0

But whenever I turn on the local news, I’m confronted with more stories of manufacturing shut down, closures and more doom and gloom. Tales of woe and how employers can’t find the staff they need, how the skills gap is ruining design and manufacturing in this country.

You’ll typically fi nd the local news reporter (or God forbid, Nick Owen) in an ill fitting suit, babbling at the camera and gurning outward from a local machine shop, talking about how there’s a skills gap; how the manufacturing industry can’t survive.

Then there’s a cut to some “context footage”. It’s usually some poor soul, in a grease stained overall, slaving away at a press brake, inches from loosing a finger through the mix of curiosity and sheer bloody boredom. Yup. According to the news, manufacturing in the UK today is about a shitty overall and components clanging into a parts bin. Brilliant.

Is it more “enthusiasm gap?”

Contrast this with a visit with a friend to a state of the art manufacturing facility recently. Our host gave us a tour of the prototype machine shop, which was quite remarkable.

For every designer, there’s pretty much a model maker, churning out functional and aesthetic prototypes to support design and engineering exploration. I’d love to tell you who it was, but this was a stricly under the radar visit.

After touring the metal room, filled to the brim with a heady mix of reliable manual Bridgeports and more modern CNC mills and turns, we ended up in the RP room. Not a lab, not a closed off special air conditioned area, but a part of the workshop.

Why can’t the buffoons at the local TV channel find somewhere interesting to discuss these matters and actually try and get today’s youth interested

Our host and I rattled on about service contracts, age of the machine, material choices and running costs per part. Then we heard the words “What’s an SLA machine?”.

Cue two geeks talking about laser optics, photocurable resins, z platforms – and a smile in return. What struck me is that designers and engineers take this type of thing for granted, that they’re there and to be used as a routine part of the conceptualisation and design validation process.

But for those perhaps even just vaguely outside of the circle, this type of technology that’s often considered by many to be nothing particularly new, is in fact just that. New. Exciting. Cool. A look at her face told me that she’d seen something new, something wonderous and special.

Adult education

This happened around a week after I decided I wanted to reeducate myself with welding and perhaps learn a few new skills.

“I live in Wolverhampton, there must be a welding course at the local college, surely?” I thought. Wrong, it would seem. Yes, I can spend every Tuesday learning how to make tapas. I can spend 18 weeks learning how to use Microsoft Office. But learn how to carry out a basic engineering process, one of the fundamentals of how to join metal and actually create something or repair something? Can I f**k!

A new approach?

These two things lead me to think that something is deeply wrong with how design and engineering is portrayed in the mainstream media. It’s either doom and gloom or someone rocking the parts bin for hours on end.

To those even vaguely interested in joining our profession, a cursory look at the news media makes it look horrible. Why can’t the buffoons at the local TV channel find somewhere interesting to discuss these matters and actually try and get today’s youth interested?

Why can’t they talk about how fascinating the process of creating new products is, how there’s still a heady mix of traditional skills (in the workshop, on the drawing pad) and high technology that still amazes those unaccustomsed to it.

Al Dean thinks it’s time the media highlighted the good in design and engineering
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