Nearly half of young people pursuing careers in manufacturing chose this path because of the influence of their school or an employer, with a similar number saying a family member was key to the decision, according to a Made Here Now study.
In a survey of 107 young people working at manufacturing-related companies, 28 per cent say teachers and careers advisers at school played a crucial role, with 26 per cent citing the role of a company, for example via a factory “open day”. Allowing for those who named both sets of interactions, the total identifying at least one comes to 48 per cent.
In addition, 45 per cent of the sample say a family member – such as a parent working in engineering or production – influenced their decision to seek a job in manufacturing.
The research provides new evidence about how policies on educational engagement can affect the numbers of people entering manufacturing and related technical sectors - areas of the economy regarded as suffering from widespread skills shortages. Juergen Maier, chair of the Digital Catapult, an industry/government innovation centre, said the survey showed how key interventions from teachers and businesses can have a “profound impact” on careers.
“The UK needs to be much a more ambitious about instilling knowledge and understanding about engineering and manufacturing into more young people's education experiences,” said Maier, who until 2019 was head of the UK operations of German engineering group Siemens.
Made Here Now’s remit is to highlight success stories in UK manufacturing, as part of efforts to encourage more young people to consider it as a career. The research was based on interviews over several months with employees aged between 20 and 32, doing a range of jobs at 76 companies in sectors from textiles to robotics.
The people in the sample were selected with the help of their employers. All appear to be making a success of their jobs while they have a range of backgrounds, with 90 per cent having attended a state as opposed to a private school. One in five has an Asian, Afro-Caribbean or Latin American racial origin, while just under half are women.
Archie Rose, a 21-year-old apprentice at the Harwin components maker in Portsmouth, said he was so impressed by a tour he did of the company’s factory while at college that he dropped his university plans and applied for a job. “I thought the tour was fantastic, each facility was incredible and looked like a great place to work.”
Juergen Maier: "The truth is as a country we love academic routes more than we do vocational ones and whilst there has been a small shift it is not enough"
Another in the study influenced by a company’s efforts to engage with the world of education was Vicki May, a 29-year-old account manager at 3T-AM, a 3D printing business. Her decision to apply for a job there hinged on a one-year placement at the company while studying product design at Bournemouth University.
“During my year out I was impressed by what I saw. I learned a lot about the real world, as well as about the techniques involved with 3D printing,” she said.
In one key result from the survey, 17 per cent of participants cited the positive impact of one or more schoolteacher. Many of these teachers were in design and technology, an area of tuition which in state schools has been cut back in recent years due to curriculum changes.
Hannah Petrie, learning and development co-ordinator at the James Walker engineering company, said the “enthusiasm” of teachers was “undoubtedly the most important factor in students selecting engineering-based subjects at school”.
According to Maier, the research should lend weight to arguments about the need to reverse the cuts in design and technology teaching, while also pushing more schools to promote technical and apprenticeship educational routes as an equally valuable counterpart to studying academic subjects.
Jon Stark, chief executive of Peratech, a maker of advanced sensors in Yorkshire, said the study highlighted the potential role for employers and education establishments to “do more to drive home how [manufacturing and engineering] jobs can provide challenges and opportunities plus a lot of satisfaction and enjoyment”.
Several people who took part in the survey pointed to multiple influences as affecting their career decisions. Sophie McIlveen, 24, an engineer at Belfast-based Axial3D, which makes surgical models, says she was encouraged to learn about engineering by her mother, who worked in a components factory.
Other key people, she said, were two “brilliant” teachers at Cambridge House Grammar School in Ballyema near Belfast – Lynda Mallon in technology and design and Shirley Anderson, who taught chemistry.
Others said they had known for years what sort of job they wanted to do, due to the inspiration of a family member. Gabriela Grigorita, a mechanical systems engineer from Romania, who works at the Griffon Hoverwork hovercraft manufacturer, said: “My father is an electrical engineer and has been a key influence. Engineering seemed to come naturally to me. For a long time I've felt a passion for maths and physics.”
A tour around a factory run by Harwin in Portsmouth led Archie Rose to drop plans for university and start an apprenticeship with the electrical components producer
Many manufacturers that have entrenched links with local schools have found the connections pay off in commercial terms, through the recruitment of people who may go on to senior jobs. Jonathan Falder, director of Manchester paints maker HMG said: “It is important that businesses in manufacturing visit schools to talk about how exciting and diverse their businesses are and the positive impact they make.”
While HMG thinks this as a good way to gain new young employees, it supports them through their careers with learning programmes aimed at developing future senior managers. “Six out of our seven board directors have come through the company in this way,” Falder said.
The stories of 60 of the 107 in the survey are available on the website, with the remainder available soon.
Of the people in the survey, 61 per cent are graduates and 36 per cent have done an apprenticeship, with 23 per cent having studied at post-graduate level and 13 per cent having either other qualifications, or none.
Engineering accounts for 60 per cent of all undergraduate degrees, followed by design (12 per cent) and engineering and design (5 cent) and with science subjects accounting for 17 per cent. Where individuals are still involved with training and education, they are counted in the study as having the qualification already.
Of the sample total, who work in 21 industrial sectors, just under a third are in a job related to production and planning, with a similar number involved with development and design. Slightly more than one in five work in technical operations including assembly or machining, and 9 per cent are in management, while sales, finance and administration accounts for 6 per cent.
One in 10 of those in the survey were born outside Britain.
With twin enthusiasms in music and engineering, Cameron Sharpe found a “perfect” job in developing top-flight audio equipment for one of the UK’s best known sound systems businesses. The 32-year-old design engineer plays electric guitar and has spent 20 years in a pipe band.
Growing up in China, Suhao Li started to "view life in a more scientific way" after winning a school biology prize. He is now a project scientist at 2D-Tech, one of the UK's top leafing graphene developers
His technology interest can be traced to his family upbringing. While his grandfather was engineer, his father had a job in the offshore industry and his mother taught chemistry. "Science and engineering were what we did and talked about at home,” says Sharpe.
A family background in engineering and twin interests in music and technology led to a design job for Cameron Sharpe at Linn, a top maker of domestic audio systems
His work at Glasgow-based Linn provided "the perfect match, giving me the chance to use engineering skills to reproduce music in as compelling a way as possible". In March 2021, Sharpe moved to a new job, still in engineering design, at LumiraDx - a US health technology business with a UK plant in Stirling.
Sharpe illustrates how a job in manufacturing can combine both creativity and hands-on skills. Often, the possibility of a career like this is highlighted by early influences including family, schools and initiatives by employers.
Aashi Srivastava is a 20-year-old product designer doing a one year-internship at product design business TTP as part of her university studies. Srivastava says her family background in India, where both her mother and father trained as engineers, gave her an early interest in this field.
She says she was greatly helped by two design and technology teachers – Andrew Duffey and Sean Kelly – at her school, Henrietta Barnett in north London. “The teachers were hugely supportive and encouraged my interests. I wouldn’t have got to where I am now without them.”
Creative design is a long-term interest for Aashi Srivastava, who works on healthcare product development at TTP near Cambridge: she puts "user needs at the heart of the design"
Tara Benkel – a French physicist working at Tokamak Energy, a developer of small nuclear fusion reactors near Oxford – says she felt drawn to science and engineering from an early age.
Her parents both worked in creative roles, involving painting and special effects for films. “I was curious about the world,” she says. “Science and engineering gave me an outlet for creativity.”
Oran Hunt is a research and development engineer at Cooksongold, a jewellery manufacturer in Birmingham. He says of his job: “There’s always a new challenge, a puzzle to be solved.” Hunt says he can trace his “deep fascination” with chemistry to a teacher at Halesowen College in the West Midlands. “I had the good fortune to have an inspiring chemistry teacher, Graham Hall. He was wonderfully eccentric and a fascinating man to listen to.”
For Juergen Maier, one of Britain’s most highly regarded industrial engineers, stories like these echo his own experience. Maier – a former UK head of Siemens, the German engineering business – was born in Germany and arrived in the UK in 1974 aged 10.
Employment in a specialist branch of manufacturing leads to many creative opportunities for Oran Hunt, an engineer at the Cooksongold jewellery maker, who describes his work in 3D printing as "shooting lasers at precious metals"
“I had three influencers to encourage me into engineering – my godfather, a successful engineer, a brilliant and fun physics teacher at my Leeds comprehensive school called Mr Walker and my early placements with Siemens in Germany and in the UK,” says Maier, chair of the Digital Catapult innovation centre and vice-chair of Northern Powerhouse Partnership, a group seeking to revive the economy of northern England.
Adding that he hears “similar stories [about influences] all the time”, Maier wants Britain to step up its efforts to ensure that interventions of this sort become more routine. Much of this boils down to encouraging more schools and employers to organise efforts to enthuse young people about science and engineering careers.
“I think we [in Britain] have done more to encourage schools/apprenticeships and work placements over the last decade, but the problem is that as a nation, people aren’t shouting for it [vocational education] and the [key government departments] mostly don’t really ‘get it’.”
Simon Biggs, education outreach officer at industrial equipment maker Renishaw, says engagement efforts by companies involve putting significant time and money into thinking of new ways to portray engineering and manufacturing. Renishaw has a strong record in doing this, with many senior employees having come to the company by this route.
Biggs says the effort often involves emphasising the creative and design aspects of technical subjects to “make engineering and technology more vividly part of young people’s lives and get the subject on their personal agendas”.
Young people themselves can also be powerful advocates for these careers. Phoebe Jay, a 24-year-old engineer at the Bentley automotive company in Crewe, is one of many UK “STEM ambassadors” – young people working in science and engineering who tell others about what they do to encourage more young people into science and industrial careers.
Abigail Jeffery – who works at a plant run by US automotive components maker BorgWarner - moved into engineering partly under the influence of her father, an enthusiast for the sector
Jay visits schools to describe how she helps manufacture some of the world’s most luxurious cars, with much of what she says aimed especially at girls. Conscious that women remain a small minority in industry, she wants “to encourage the idea that engineering is as good a career for women as for men”.