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Making a difference - UK Electronics Skills

The mission to improve UK electronics skills is making progress.

There is no definitive way to measure the level of skills inherent in the UK electronics sector, but it is safe to say the general level is not high enough. If it was, organisations like Semta, the sector skills council, and the newly created UK Electronics Skills Foundation (UKESF) would have little purpose.

It is this belief that UK electronics would benefit greatly from 'training' that has focused attention over the recent past. While much of this attention has been aimed at manufacturing and design technicians – looking to give a boost to the abilities of a range of companies – there is also a perceived need to improve leadership skills.

Lynn Tomkins, operations director for Semta, said that, despite the economic conditions, skills is a top business driver, along with quality, cost and delivery. "Other issues of concern include business improvement techniques, leadership and management, and new product development and introduction."

Indro Mukerjee (pictured), executive chairman of C-MAC MicroTechnology, is deeply involved in the skills development arena. He is chairman of the UKESF's strategic advisory board and a board member of Semta. "One of the challenges has been that the electronics industry, as a whole, was quite far behind other sectors." The reason, said Mukerjee, is because the sector is dominated by SMEs. "We don't have the equivalents of BAE Systems, which means we have to work through the major trade associations."

One of the targets over the last year has been to get the electronics sector engaged with the Government's Train to Gain programme. Under Train to Gain, individual companies and the Government work together to improve the skills of staff members. Train to Gain says its expert, impartial service is a tool for long term business success. Partly, the focus was to make sure other sectors didn't benefit too much. "To not have taken that route would have meant other people would have got electronics' share," Mukerjee said.

Now, the focus for electronics skills development is broadening. "We have the ambition to take the skills offering beyond today's levels," Mukerjee continued. "It's also valid for IP generation and design. We need an end to end offer for electronics skills."

While there are, apparently, justifiable concerns at the skill levels of the industry, there are also worries about the industry's future. Tomkins said: "A good supply of graduates is very important and this is becoming an issue for electronics companies. We need new blood: a supply of new people is key for the industry's growth."

Tomkins, who has embarked on a campaign of direct engagement with electronics companies across the UK, outlined the scale of the challenge. "There are about 8500 companies in the sector, employing around 159,000 people. Many of these are small companies involved in high value work. We are currently working with more than 1000 of these companies, helping them develop skills. Of these, 174 companies have completed their plan and 2500 people are working towards a recognised qualification, supported by Train to Gain funding."

The fractured nature of the electronics sector means it can be harder to get training providers interested. Tomkins noted: "With big companies, there are big numbers of people to train and providers will take note. They may not be as interested when there are smaller numbers of people to train. If we can get more people together, we can then take advantage."

UKESF is compiling a map of who provides top level training, because it believes the sources are not always visible.
Mukerjee sees two major targets for the campaign. "There are two kinds of company," he believes. "One is the company which knows it lacks skills and that's the least problem. The biggest problem is posed by companies who don't know they need their skills upgraded." This latter problem can be addressed with a skills assessment.

"The skills assessment approach has a clear method," Mukerjee asserted. "It's a model that will go online. Businesses can work through it and then get advice. People's eyes are opened when they take this approach and it's important for small businesses to have upgraded skills because they work in a global industry."

Derek Boyd, chief executive of the UK Electronics Alliance, is a UKESF board member. "The UKESF launched at the beginning of 2010. Since then, we have been formalising agreements with agencies, founding partners, the IET and the Engineering Development Trust. There has been significant development work, with a website now up and running ( Promotional material can be downloaded and this is finding its way into the industry.
"While we are seeing growth in recognition, we have a growth plan for UKESF and are confident the model will scale to offer companies both quantity and quality."

A particular achievement of which Boyd is proud is that companies have committed the money needed to support 31 approved scholars in nine companies. "There will also be a UKESF summer school next year, so we're making good progress," Boyd claimed.

An important milestone will be passed imminently – the UKESF's first Board Meeting. "We have established UKESF as a standalone company," Boyd pointed out, "and we will begin business in earnest later this year."
He says all Board members are committed to making a difference. "We are all concerned about falling numbers of people studying electronics and the small pool from which employers can recruit. There is a commitment to solve that problem and we are identifying and executing on a small, but significant, number of areas."

"Electronics is mainly SME based," Mukerjee reiterated, "and there is a tendency for these companies to say they're too busy. But, at the same time, they complain they don't have enough skilled people. What has been heartening is the way the founding members of UKESF have gone 'above and beyond'; it's refreshing to find people who will put their money where their mouths are."

Tomkins underlined the challenges of getting employers to participate. "We will be talking with the 1000 companies we are working with to see how they can source the graduates they need through UKESF. Companies may want to take on young people, but they don't always know how to do it. We can help."

While there is emphasis on training delivery, there are other approaches, including working within other sectors. "We can also get electronics companies involved in the skills agenda through such initiatives as SC21, the aerospace supply chain. Vertical supply chains such as this give companies an incentive to get up to the mark and develop their skills," he concluded, "and we're on track to make a difference."

Tale of the tape

* The sector:
8580 companies employ 159,500 people

* Semta's activity since October 2008
1902 companies approached
993 follow up telephone calls
1005 electronics companies engaged with Semta from levels 1 to 4
79% are SMEs with 39% employing less than 50 people
174 training plans complete, with funding identified
2552 qualifications and training programmes on the plans
£1000 management and leadership grants available for companies who employ less than 250
All age apprenticeships worth £14,600 over three years

* Business drivers
Economic conditions
Quality, cost and delivery performance
Ways of working

* Top skills demanded
Business improvement techniques
Productivity and competitiveness
ESF training programmes, including vendor and software training
Lean techniques
New product development and introduction
Management and leadership
Performing manufacturing operations
Team leader training
Linux training
All age apprenticeships
IT Skills

Graham Pitcher

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