November 2015 | Gabriella Griffiths

The skills challenge

With Europe's complacency on the subject being recognised as a major problem, there's new interest in formal skills development — and the Tata group is playing its part

It feels like a car crash in slow motion. That was how John Cridland, director general of the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), the UK’s leading business association, described the skills crisis in the country. “As older engineers hang up their hard hats and head for retirement, we simply don’t have enough of the next generation coming through,” he said at CBI’s manufacturing conference last year.

The 19-year-old Harriet Vickers is a Range Rover Evoque WISE Scholarship beneficiary
Technology is evolving at an unprecedented pace and consumers are adopting new products and services at an astonishing rate, pushing for further innovation as they go. It’s a golden opportunity for European manufacturers. But this accelerates the demand for skills.

CBI found that 55 percent of UK’s businesses are not confident there will be enough people to fill their highly skilled roles. A similar number (52 percent) admitted there was a shortfall in experienced staff with science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) qualifications.

A report by the European Commission has predicted that by 2020 just under a million information technology jobs in Europe will be unfilled. But all is not lost. Governments, schools and companies across the continent — including Tata — are working to solve the problem.

Building stronger links between universities and companies may be a solution. In the UK, closer collaboration between educational bodies and employers is paying dividends. CBI found that 77 percent of employers are forging links with universities; 43 percent are offering students placements; 38 percent are creating real-life projects for them to work on; and 39 percent are partnering universities on research and innovation.

Tata Steel Europe created the Advanced Steels Research Centre at Warwick University. It’s hoped the £20 million industry and government funded centre will strengthen its education programmes.

Shortage of women in STEM
The supply-demand imbalance is not the only off-kilter element in the skills story. There is an issue of the number of women in STEM careers. A study by the Campaign for Science and Engineering found only 9 percent of those in non-medical STEM careers were women.

Britain’s WISE (Women in Science and Engineering) campaign aims to get more women into technical subjects. It has pledged to get a million more women into STEM careers, through consultancy, awards and training. Jaguar Land Rover (JLR) has been supporting WISE for the past three years through its Range Rover Evoque WISE scholarship.

Besides encouraging the uptake of STEM subjects at school, European companies and governments aim to increase ways young people can access careers in engineering and manufacturing by offering more apprenticeships.

In 2013, the European Commission was instrumental in setting up the European Alliance for Apprenticeships, a platform that brings together governments, businesses, vocational training providers, youth representatives and other stakeholders, with the common goal of strengthening the quality, supply and image of apprenticeships.

Tata Steel Europe, Tata Chemicals and JLR take on new classes of apprentices each year. JLR is among the UK’s largest employers of newly qualified graduates and apprentices, taking on 2,500 over the past five years. These include 1,600 that joined the company’s graduate programme and 900 advanced and higher apprentices that have started their careers with the company.

Tata Chemicals emphasises development in a bid to keep the apprentices once they are trained. “We often find that other employers try to head-hunt our staff once we have invested in their training,” explains Karen Lounds, head of HR at Tata Chemicals Europe in Northwich UK. “So, we have an internal programme to try and develop our best talent for technical and leadership skills, to ensure we retain our best employees.”

Staff training critical
While training new recruits is a sensible way to increase a company’s skill base, the value of training for existing staff is huge. Here, Tata companies in Europe help companies to improve. Tata Interactive Systems creates e-learning software for businesses, helping them to use resources they have rather than seeking people from outside of the company.

“We work with many large clients, such as Unilever and Diageo, to improve skills internally,” explains Will Chadwick, UK vice president of Tata Interactive Systems. “For us, it’s about isolating skills requirements and helping companies to deliver those skills without hiring.”

JLR recently launched the Jaguar Land Rover Academy. It offers employees a chance to take part in continuous development programmes to enhance their careers and offer the requisite skills to fulfil growth plans.

Tata Technologies and its clients need creative solutions to solve their skills challenges. Being a technology business means it is crucial to find and develop the right skills. But while many technology and manufacturing companies are preoccupied with inspiring the next generation of engineers and scientists, Tata Technologies is also solving the problem in the here and now.

“Working with schools and getting people excited about careers in technology is a great idea. Likewise, broadening the paths to a technology career is extremely important,” says Richard Welford, chief strategy and marketing officer at Tata Technologies. “But you have a potential lead time of 10 to 15 years for it to have a meaningful impact. What about now?”

Mr Welford and his team have carried out audits on their own and their clients’ use of engineering resources. They found that often, engineering roles could be consolidated and valuable capacity released, if engineers stopped carrying out non-value-added tasks. “Our research found about 80 percent of an engineer’s average day is not actually spent performing engineering tasks. We have developed solutions to help our clients redistribute that work… and reduce dependency on new recruits.”

JLR offers its workers functional, business and management qualifications, delivered by leading universities, academic institutions and vocational training providers. It works closely with many leading universities, including the University of Warwick. An example of this joint work on up-skilling is the Technical Accreditation Scheme (TAS), developed and delivered in partnership with Warwick Manufacturing Group and nine universities.

Focusing on future products and low-carbon technologies, TAS makes up part of the JLR Academy and develops employees at all levels and disciplines in the organisation. TAS is flexible, which suits various ability levels and covers 80 modules. About 4,480 JLR employees are on TAS modules, indicating hunger among staff to develop skills, too.

Diversity in career paths
“One way we stay ahead of the competition in attracting top talent from Europe is our advanced development and training,” says Jo Lopes, head of technical excellence, JLR. “With a company our size, we can offer several career paths to people and expose them to much greater diversity.

“The skills challenge doesn’t just affect us, but also the supply chain,” he says. “JLR has significant brand presence, the attractiveness of which can help us to secure talent. But some suppliers are significantly smaller and have less established brands. We are only as good as our supply chain; if they struggle, we struggle. So it’s a two-pronged concern for us.”

JLR continues dialogue with government, suppliers and skills agencies to help address the skills agenda to ensure enough people with the right skills will fill its own vacancies and those in the supply chain. The company chairs the Automotive Council Industrial Partnership, through which it works with other automobile employers to transform the sector’s skills system. Besides, it set up a team to work with its supply chain on skill development and extended its own up-skilling programme to suppliers. This includes extending its Advanced Skills Accreditation Scheme to suppliers, enabling employees to access MSc level training modules at leading UK universities.