06/03/2014

By Emma Wharton, head of human resources at Sofa Brands International

At a time when unemployment is still higher than we would like, why is the UK manufacturing sector suffering from a shortage of skilled workers? It seems counter-intuitive that British jobs are going unfilled when so many people are struggling to find work.

I believe there are still too few young people leaving education and thinking about a future in manufacturing; it’s hard to see where the next generation of leaders and skilled craftspeople are coming from. The sector has a lot to offer and, if we want to solve this problem, it’s our job as an industry to get the message out there.

Manufacturing in the UK is thriving. 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.

So why the skills shortage?
In the long term our industry’s growth relies on our ability to recruiting the very best workforce. It’s really important to attract new blood into traditional industries and manufacturing in particular, to drive the UK economy forward.

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 especially.

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. We currently have 16 graduates and apprentices working across our business, and plan to increase this number over the next 12 months.

Since the launch of our apprentice scheme we have offered eight school leavers unique opportunities to learn the ropes in a thriving business. Our apprentices work with master craftsmen in upholstery; understanding the running of the business in administration; and working with designers in design and development.

When we take on an apprentice we look for a number of things, such as creativity, attention to detail, and leadership potential. The apprentices we take on are being prepared for senior roles throughout our group.

Our 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 is no different from what I learned 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?
Since 2010, more than 1.5 million people have started an apprenticeship in the UK. 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 mean that young people are exploring alternatives, and I believe this is one of the reasons why apprenticeships are increasing in popularity. They close the gap between the classroom and full time employment, giving young people the opportunity to earn as they learn.

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 a better understanding of the manufacturing industry and raise its profile among young people as well as ensuring that there are continued opportunities for talented and ambitious youngsters to enter, develop and prosper in our exciting industry.

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

Manufacturing is key to the future success of our country – we just need to show more young people why it’s such a great sector to build their careers in.