Technology / Solving the skills gap in the industrial machinery sector

Solving the skills gap in the industrial machinery sector

At a recent meeting at the Goring Hotel in central London, hosted by Siemens, a discussion on the digitalisation in the industrial machines industry focused strongly on the skills needed by industry and engineering in an increasingly digital world.

Digitalisation involves the ability of organisations to capture and process data across processes, internally and externally. It means that information can be shared more easily and used more effectively.

Digital technology offers huge opportunities to save costs and, more importantly, to improve products and services and even develop totally new business models.

However, a number of obstacles are holding digitalisation back. And chief among these are skills in the UK workforce.

Solving the skills gap

The lack of appropriate engineering and management skills was raised as an issue across the UK. Engineers working as hands-on engineers need a more cross-functional skill set, it was felt, combining different disciplines – eg, mechanical engineering with software engineering. And engineers working as managers need better soft skills that will enable them to promote innovation and collaboration.

If the UK is to make a success of digitalisation, then we need to ensure we have the right skills available. And that means addressing our education system.

At primary school

We should start to focus on the opportunities that technology brings at primary school. And we should do this by enabling children to experience the excitement of engineering. If this sounds far-fetched, then what are toys such as Lego and Meccano other than simple engineering games? Using them we can teach children basic engineering skills while they play.

Why are primary schools so reluctant to teach engineering principles to young children at school? Part of the problem is a focus on reading and writing at the expense of physical, logical and spacial skills. Luckily, at least as far as spacial skills go, many children learn these while playing computer games.

But another problem seems to be that many primary schools don’t consider that young children will be inspired by engineers. All too often the celebrity visitors to schools are firefighters (exciting) and footballers (glamorous). But not engineers.

Why is this? It was suggested that the perception among many teachers is that the role of engineers is to wield spanners and oily rags. And yet engineers design bridges using 3-D CAD software, manage 15,000-tonne boring machines, build space shuttles, and create special effects for films. (Not all at the same time of course.) The thought that engineering might actually be fun doesn’t seem to cross the mind of many teachers.

At secondary school

If we are losing an opportunity at primary school, the meeting’s participants felt that the UK is doing even worse at secondary school. Innovation is key in all of business, as in life generally. Why then, it was asked, do we seem to “teach out” innovation at secondary school by forcing children down predefined channels and focusing on knowledge retention rather than problem solving?

Our educational establishment holds up STEM subjects as being highly desirable. And so they are. But no more so than team-working skills (developed through team sports and choral singing), active listening (music and drama), or communication (poetry, debating and art).

And there is another danger. Many people believe that teenagers are ‘digitally literate’, that they have an easy relationship with digital technology and understand it almost instinctively. If this is the case, then why teach them about digital technology at school?

Unfortunately, according to the meeting’s participants, this perception of digital literacy is not true. The average teenager’s use of digital technology is facilitated by easy-to-use interfaces. Their understanding of how the technology works and how they could use it differently is minimal.

Some teachers may also be part of the problem. It was suggested that this may partly be because there is less career advice at school compared to the past. School teachers need to realise that engineering is a great career. There needs to be ‘parity of esteem’ with other careers such as social work, HR and marketing. Teachers need to accept that engineering is a future proofed skill – unlike accountancy, much legal work and even some medical roles.

At college and university

Happily, the obsession with degree level education is waning. It was pointed out that being an apprentice is an excellent start to a career. In fact, the majority of business leaders in the meeting started as apprentices.

However, in an increasingly complex digital world, degree level education has many advantages. In the UK, unfortunately, undergraduate courses are lagging behind industry’s requirements.

British engineering graduates tend to be highly specialised in one of the engineering disciplines. They are unlikely to understand digital technologies such as artificial intelligence. But in order for them to make use of digital technology they need to have experience of it.

At least some, and probably most, of our engineers should have cross disciplinary training. Mechatronics degrees are an example of this. While some universities, and notably some of the newer ones are grappling with this idea, traditional universities are not. But without cross disciplinary training we will not produce flexible and adaptable engineers who can evolve their skills as technology evolves.

One of the problems is that universities don’t have perfect knowledge of what industry requires. To solve this, the industry as a whole needs to work with them to ensure appropriate education is developed.


UK business must adopt digital technology if it is to maintain its place in the world. But, the meeting agreed, there is a growing skills gap in the UK. As a nation we need to develop the right attitude to engineering, and digital technology within engineering. This is something that needs to start at primary school and continue through university and beyond.

This meeting was chaired by Brian Holliday, CEO of Siemens Digital Factory. Brian recently gave evidence to the Parliamentary Education Committee on The Fourth Industrial Revolution.

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