Wings clipped by soaring skills shortage

20th July 2007 at 01:00

Our aerospace industry is booming, but it is failing to entice young people as a career

the aerospace industry is one of the most successful of the UK's manufacturing sectors. Most recent figures show record numbers of new orders, and the number of employees increased to more than 124,000 last year. But the industry faces turbulence.

Challenges include an increase in security issues after the 911 World Trade Centre attacks; environmental concerns over growing air traffic; and new competitors from the Far East. These, coupled with technological changes the increasing use of lighter composite materials and more fuel-efficient and quieter engines mean the industry is in urgent need of new skills to keep ahead of its competitors.

Ged Leahy, workforce and skills director at Rolls-Royce aero engines and chair of the industry's sector strategy group says: "We are going to need a more capable technical workforce at all levels."

Most of the industry's turnover comes from building aircraft systems and frames, followed by aircraft equipment and engines. Traditionally, further education has played a major role in training its engineers. At Airbus UK, 60 per cent of its senior managers came up through the apprenticeship route.

Today a number of colleges are still big players in working with the industry. Deeside in north Wales, City of Bristol and Newcastle colleges are centres of vocational excellence in aerospace.

But it is a fragmented industry. Aside from big names such as Rolls-Royce, Airbus and BAE Systems, it is mostly made up of the small firms that supply them over half of which employ fewer than five people. There are also around 30,000 aircraft maintenance personnel a figure that has remained constant for 15 years, despite aircraft numbers almost doubling.

In common with other manufacturing and engineering sectors, the industry has an ageing workforce 45 per cent are over the age of 45. It employs a much lower proportion of women than engineering generally. And according to a recent industry skills audit, there is a shortage of young people joining.

The audit criticises the Connexions careers service as inadequate. It adds that the quality of school-leavers does not meet the sector's needs and, oddly, that "the image of the sector has a negative impact on recruiting the right people".

Mr Leahy of Rolls-Royce admits the industry has a selling job to do. "I think it's the image of engineering as a whole," he says. "There's a perception that engineering and manufacturing is about grubby work in old factory environments.

"I'm not saying there aren't examples of that. But if you come into our facilities, they are all modern a reflection of pound;300-400 million recent investment. There is a bit of an image problem."

Another problem for aerospace is the slump in young people opting for science, maths and physics in schools. The industry is pinning its hopes on new developments, including the National Skills Academy for Manufacturing and the engineering diploma for 14 to 19-year-olds, which is to be offered by schools and colleges from next year.

Mr Leahy believes the diploma will keep options open for those students who may later develop an interest in an aerospace career. But he warns that the industry has concerns about the ability of colleges and schools to deliver the course.

"Some of the better examples we have seen are the ones where there has been better networking, rather than trying to create capability in an individual school or college," he says. "They are going to have to work much more collaboratively to provide the total solution."

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