Skills shortage sparks drive to make process industries more attractive. Ellie Zolfagharifard reports.
For the average engineering graduate, the process industries may not have the glamour of motorsport, or the excitement of aerospace, but dig a little deeper, and a different story emerges.
Stan Higgins, chief executive of the North East of England Process Industry Cluster (NEPIC) believes that the process industries have earned an unfair reputation for conservative practice, dull tradition and legacy attitudes.
Crucially many believe the process sectors are stifled by convention and lack innovation. But this isn’t the case, claims Higgins.
“All industries that utilise science, engineering, technology and mathematics (STEM) skills are desperately short of qualified engineers and scientists,” said Higgins.
“There will be a shortfall in these skills for many years to come and this represents a huge opportunity for today’s young people who have the aptitude to gain qualifications in STEM subjects.”
A recent report by the Chemistry Growth Strategy Group reveals just how vital many of the process sectors are to society.
According to the report, Strategy for delivering chemistry-fuelled growth of the UK economy, the UK chemical industry supports half a million jobs.
All industries that utilise STEM skills are desperately short of qualified engineers and scientists
NEPIC chief executive Stan Higgins
The manufacturing sector as a whole generates £600 billion of annual sales and is reliant on the chemical sector for raw materials.
Overall, the process sectors make a huge contribution to the UK economy. The industries are currently worth more than £60 billion per year. They have continued to grow in output year on year since the 1960s and are some of the last remaining net exporters in the UK.
Over the last decade, process industries have added £30 million per day to the UK balance of trade while the rest of manufacturing has shown a £200 million per day deficit.
It’s a trend that Graeme Philp, chief executive of industry body GAMBICA, believes will continue. He claims that a process engineer can look forward to a relatively stable career as the UK cements its position as a leader in the process sectors.
According to Philp, the long timeframes involved in many of the projects within the process sectors adds another element of support.
The role of a process engineer is also far more varied than it was a decade ago. Many more engineers are now directly involved with health, safety and environment issues and degree courses have started to
There are a huge variety of jobs across a number of sectors including chemicals, polymers, pharmaceuticals, engineering, renewable energy and materials.
But despite these benefits, the skills gap is widening. NEPIC estimates that in the North East alone, the process sectors will require up to 10,000 people with engineering skills over the next 10 years.
The Chemical Industries Association (CIA) added that there is a continued need for young engineers with three to five years of experience who can begin on projects immediately.
Higgins blames a lack of understanding among young people about what the role of a process engineer entails, leading many to find careers elsewhere.
He says this lack of clarity needs to be addressed, and a number of organisations are working to deliver a better understanding of the process industries to young students.
For instance, a special six-month training scheme designed to help young people not in employment, education or training secure an apprenticeship in the process industries is underway at Middlesbrough College.
Young people on this Pre-Apprenticeship scheme will be trained to a standard where they can compete on level skills terms with others for 100 SSDP Advanced Apprenticeships.
“If the UK adopts fracking to access shale gas, chemical scientists and engineers will need to play a central role in its production and in monitoring any environmental impact,” said Dr Robert Parker, chief executive of the Royal Society of Chemistry.
“To stay ahead in the global economic race we have to have a committed, dynamic level of government support for the chemical sciences, paralleled by a recognition of what chemistry can bring to our country through energy, food, water, fuel, health and in the fight against climate change.”
The hope is initiatives such as this will give students a practical understanding of the process sectors, and help showcase some of the exciting activities that take place.
According to Parker, the wide range of opportunities in the process sectors means that those tempted by a career in the industry will have the opportunity to innovate in various ways that have real impact on society.
Talking skills at the higest level
The Chemistry Growth Strategy Group (CGSG) was recently established to examine the key drivers for growth and how a partnership with Government might work.
The three pillars on which the strategy is based are: l Securing competitive energy and feedstock supplies l Accelerating innovation across the industry l Rebuilding the UK’s chemical supply chains.
The report also identifies six “enabling areas” to support the chemical industry. One of these is to tackle skills shortages, with programmes to promote the industry to schoolchildren and introduce fit-for-purpose qualifications and training. Cogent, the industry’s skills body, has developed the skills component of the strategy, and this includes the establishment of an employer-led Science Industry Partnership (SIP). Cogent strategy director, John Holton said: “Cogent is working with employers to facilitate industry-led skills for growth within the chemicals sector. If the SIP bid is approved, the solutions will equip the industry with the key skills it needs at every level of the workforce - from entry level through to postgraduate. Importantly, these programmes would be designed by the employers themselves, backed by joint investment from the Government.” The CGSG’s vision, set out at the start of the report, states: “By 2030, the UK chemical industry will have further reinforced its position as the country’s leading manufacturing exporter and enabled the chemistry-using industries to increase their Gross Value Added contribution to the UK economy by 50%, from £195m to £300m.”