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Some of the UK’s fastest expanding manufacturers are being forced to curb their plans for growth as they struggle to recruit technicians and engineers, according to a survey that adds to the evidence that skills shortages are holding back the economy.
The study of 402 businesses indicates that most are optimistic about their ability to win orders and push up sales in the next year. As a result they are keen to increase staff but two-thirds have experienced difficulties hiring.
The companies in the survey, organised by the UK arm of General Electric, the US industrial goods producer, cover those in high-tech sectors that focus on technically advanced products or use specialised processes to make them.
Mark Fenyes, chairman and owner of Peterborough-based Omega Foundry Machinery, said: “If I could find two or three engineers with the right degree of experience and skills, I’d employ them straight away.” Omega makes specialised machines for the metals industry. It has a staff of 150, half of them based in the UK. The company has increased its British workforce by 25 in the past two years on the back of increased investments in the UK factories making castings for Formula One racing cars and medical equipment.
John Morris, chief executive of Jam Recruitment, a consultancy specialising in engineering, said: “Even in a climate where much of manufacturing is growing only very slowly, if at all, demand for top-quality engineers, particularly with experience of managing projects and who have design qualifications, is very high.”
Demand for people with technical qualifications has been fuelled by expansion in much of the car industry, led by businesses such as Jaguar Land Rover and Nissan, which are increasing output. In aerospace and defence, companies such as Rolls-Royce and BAE Systems are looking for technical employees to work on products such as aerospace engines and nuclear submarines.
Sir Mike Gregory is head of the Institute for Manufacturing at Cambridge university. It trains about 80 engineers a year, with most of them going into UK jobs. “In just about every sector that employs engineers, I hear howls of anguish from companies which find they cannot get the people they want,” Sir Mike said.
The results from the exercise are part of a long sequence of indications that shortages of staff in key areas are sapping the ability of businesses to expand, even at a time when much of the UK economy is mired in gloom.
Graham Potts, general manager at F. Bamford, a maker of industrial instruments based in Stockport, near Manchester, said one of the difficulties was in trying to entice away engineers and technicians working for other businesses at a time of general uncertainty about economic prospects. “We are looking for people with perhaps 10 years of experience in a specialised manufacturing environment and unfortunately there aren’t enough of these people around.”
Mr Potts said he would probably need to recruit about six technically qualified people in the next two years to add to F. Bamford’s 30-strong staff as part of an effort to push up annual sales from £3.5m to £5m.
Tony Snow thinks he would be experiencing the same kind of recruitment difficulties as the rest of the engineering industry if it had not been for an apprenticeship programme that he started organising almost 20 years ago.
Since 1993 the managing director and part owner of Loadpoint Bearings, based in Poole, Dorset, has taken on one or two apprentices a year as part of a long-term effort to find promising school-leavers and spend time and money training them. Today six of Mr Snow’s 26-strong staff are former apprentices who started their careers on the shop floor.
“Recruiting and training apprentices is expensive and painful but it’s a way to ensure that you have a good supply of people who can work at a high level and who you can rely on,” says Mr Snow.
His company is a world leader in highly specialised air bearing spindles – devices that support rotating machinery on a thin bed of compressed air and are used in applications such as polishing contact lenses or drilling printed circuit boards.
Buoyed by this recruitment programme, Mr Snow has high hopes of increasing the sales of his business from £2.5m last year to about £10m by 2017.