In this interview with Stephen Mitchell, EEF’s Director of Apprentices & Technology Training, we explore what it takes to remain competitive and retain growth, and the future of manufacturing post-Brexit and with the 4IR.
Prior to his current role as EEF’s Director of Apprentices and Technology Training, Stephen Mitchell was part of a start-up company that manufactured a product that purified water by filtration.
His 30-year career in manufacturing started at the age of 16 as an apprentice. He became a shop-floor supervisor in a manufacturing company that made professional lawnmowers and then advanced in the organisation to become the Operations Director. Stephen eventually became the Customer Care and After-Sales Director of the parent company, supporting B2B deals and distribution throughout Europe, the UK, Africa and the Middle East.
How do you see the role of technical training in the workplace?
The technical education route that allows a person to go into work and get real work experience and an understanding of what work is about - and the ability to attach an apprenticeship to that - is an amazing opportunity to broaden the horizons of future engineers away from the traditional education routes. That gives them the chance to understand whether they are in the right career path very early on and also the chance to contribute to the organisation from the beginning of their career, which I think is very important.
In terms of the employer it is the same thing: you get future engineers into the business who can very quickly provide a new perspective, as well as an opportunity to increase productivity within their organisation, using the skills that they have learned that perhaps do not exist in that business yet.
We have to be innovative as a training provider: modernise our offerings to make it more interesting and relevant, to have the latest technology and equipment, as well as the latest thinking and processes, because those are the things that engineers will take into a business. The younger generation can also grasp them quicker and better – IT, technology, internet, data handling, data squashing – all are part of the changes of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
This younger generation will bring the 4IR into being, because they will understand it faster and see the opportunities that go with it easier, which is another great reason to bring that new blood in to the organisation.
How can training help manufacturers face the 4IR?
Training is essential for achieving progress, inspire innovation and increase efficiency. This is especially true when there are skill gaps, which is probably inevitable with the onset of the 4IR.
We are continuously working on integrating 4IR into skills development in all our training offerings to help manufacturers better prepare for the future. There is an obvious emphasis on robotics and automated factories and processes, data recognition and collection and many more aspects that give us a better understanding of how 4IR is shaping and will be shaping future manufacturing.
Even more than technology in terms of IT, data collection and management – decision making as a result of that has to become transparent by removing the human factor from the mundane. The challenge is to get this message across and to enable people and organisations to achieve this while making it interesting and exciting.
What is the impact of the Levy?
The Levy is making companies realise that training is a cost that has to have a value proposition for the company. Companies now better understand what ROI they are getting. It is also critical for us to make sure we are totally focussed on the client’s needs and that they get the absolute best value for money.
The Levy has also honed the perception of training managers and HR managers in organisations, who really focus on making sure that the training they are calling for meets the needs of the business. These managers also realise it’s sometimes better to spend a little more in order to achieve synergy and get exactly the training they need, which will actually improve production and increase efficiency.
What are the top skills that companies will need to grow and employees will need to advance?
Automation will certainly continue to play a major role going forward. That skillset is inseparably linked to the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The management and maintenance of those systems are essential now and will grow to be an even bigger part of what manufacturing will be centred on in the near and far future. More traditional core skills like CNC tools will continue to be strong as older generations of the workforce retire. Systems awareness - the concept that you can have an automated solution for a constantly growing number of operations - will require people to have a wider spread of knowledge across the basic manufacturing processes.
It’s possible that Brexit will drive the level of competitiveness, force us to move faster and look at the way we manufacture so that we are efficient. If robotics, automation and materials handling solutions are part of the answer to that challenge then people will have to firmly embrace it.
What do you see as the main challenges for companies and individuals as these changes unfold?
Expanding the skill base to avoid skill gaps is an important one: Being able to bring in new skills, meaning apprentices, as well as modernising existing staff’s technical skills by re-skilling and up-skilling them so they are ready for the next generation of robots.
Another challenge would be finding roles that are fit for those within the organisation who might become redundant due to automation, and upskilling them accordingly. We need to move away from single-skill workers to multi-skill workers.
We have a responsibility to educate people and organisations about why UK manufacturing is going down the road it is going instead of saying to older generations of workers that they are no longer needed because they are too set in their ways or cannot do the work. We will need to re-train the older generations of workers and the challenge is to find the right level and approach that will support the rate of growth that we will need to achieve in order to remain competitive in the new world.
Management in organisations, and perhaps especially in SMEs, need to look at the world differently now and ask themselves where they want to be in five or ten years in terms of a post-Brexit world and its opportunities and how they can optimise those opportunities. This will enable them to focus on any shortcomings they may currently have and that they need to address. This is also true for staff, who will need to think about how to adapt to the changes and the future, and what is required of them in terms of abilities, skills and knowledge to be able to contribute and remain relevant. Education should be, now more than ever, a lifelong ongoing experience.
What does the EEF Technology Hub offer and what makes it unique?
The EEF Technology Hub
is a world-class capability to deliver apprenticeship and technical upskilling training. We have an automated factory in the facility through which our clients can understand what a totally automated system looks like. We have state of the art robotics cells, giving us the ability to demonstrate how robotics systems and processes can work in a manufacturing environment. We have rapid prototyping for plastic component printing. The hub also has IT systems that are second to none, demonstrating how data collection and 4IR interfaces into facilities. And in addition we offer the fundamental engineering courses that people still need to have in manufacturing, through our industry leading tool room.
This is not something we only offer larger, established companies but also to small businesses, who need training to remain competitive due to all the reasons I have mentioned before. We can provide a training journey for an employer and its employees, starting with the basic building blocks of what manufacturing
is about, through to how does that relate to the factories of the future and how the 4IR will affect manufacturing.