Wanted: skilled workers for the UK manufacturing industry, says Emma Wharton

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Emma Wharton - SBI

The UK is currently the world’s seventh largest manufacturer and has been enjoying the biggest factory boom in 19 years. According to the House of Commons, we are currently experiencing the biggest rise in new orders and output since 1994.

This is all great news for the manufacturing industry, which is clearly making a strong contribution to the economy. But growing businesses need to attract new talent and this successful sector is facing an increasing skills shortage.

There are still too few young people leaving education these days and thinking about a future in manufacturing. The falling interest has meant that the next generation of leaders and skilled craftspeople have become less easily identifiable. I believe the sector has a lot to offer and it’s our job as an industry to get the message out there.

So why the skill shortage? 

The long term future of the industry’s growth relies on recruiting the very best workforce to drive UK businesses forward. It’s really important to attract new blood into traditional industries and manufacturing in particular.

One of the biggest challenges we face as an industry is that manufacturing has a perception issue. I don’t think people realise the wide range of skills required to be successful. Obviously, a design instinct is crucial, but logistical thinking, people skills and possessing a laser-focused eye for detail are also essential.

More and more young people are choosing service sector roles over manufacturing, which has a negative perception among young people and women.

This needs to change and in order to do that it requires a stronger and more committed co-ordinated partnership between industry and the education sector, both at universities and in schools.

What can we do?

We must educate young people about the rich, diverse and exciting roles within the manufacturing industry.

In 2011, we at Sofa Brands International launched our apprenticeship scheme. Sofa Brands International is the UK’s leading branded sofa group. We are one of the country’s most successful furniture manufacturers, designing and crafting some of the most well loved sofas and chairs in the country. These include the UK’s top furniture brand, G Plan; Duresta, a highly successful label worldwide and the much loved Parker Knoll collections.

Since the launch of our apprentice scheme we have offered eight school leavers unique opportunities to learn the ropes across a thriving business. Our apprentices and graduates have had the opportunity to work right across the business. Working with master craftsmen in upholstery; creating and rolling out national advertising campaigns in marketing; understanding the running of the business in administration; and working with CAD/CAM designers in design and development.

The graduate and apprenticeships programmes are designed to meet business needs, and are developed according to each individual’s interests and ambitions so they are able to grow and develop in parts of the business they are really passionate about.

What I have found at Sofa Brands International was essentially no different from what I found during my time at Rolls Royce – the best young people are attracted to companies that genuinely invest in their staff and can offer opportunities for them to grow together.

What’s next? 

Nearly three years on, the SBI schemes have been a huge success and I believe this reflects the sea of change in the attitudes of school leavers and graduates that has begun to take shape, particularly in the last 12 months. Rising university fees and a saturation in the service jobs market has led to a shift in perspective. Increasing numbers of youngsters up and down the country now look to UK manufacturing and apprenticeships as the key to their future careers. The National Apprenticeship Service recently reported there is now a staggering 11 applicants for each apprenticeship vacancy.

Manufacturing, a source of national pride

As an industry, there are several things we must do. We must work together to build better understanding of the manufacturing industry and raise its profile among young people as well ensuring that there are continued opportunities for talented and ambitious youngsters to enter, develop and prosper in our exciting industry.

Apprenticeships and graduate schemes give us access to the pipeline of the best and brightest budding furniture industry professionals.

We’re hiring!

We have a number of opportunities open for new apprentices and graduates right now – from frame-maker and upholstery roles through to electrician, IT and finance positions.

Emma Wharton, head of human resources at Sofa Brands International

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