Past, present and future02 November 2018

Verity Davidge, head of education and skills policy at manufacturers’ organisation EEF, speaks about the current skills situation in maintenance-related occupations, and what the future may hold

How much technical knowledge do maintenance engineers need, and what is the way that we assess their competency?

All maintenance engineers require a good level of knowledge on basic engineering principles and practices to ensure that they are effective and efficient in the workplace, fixing emergency breakdowns under pressure, carrying out scheduled work and managing the maintenance budget.

A good maintenance engineer has to be able to problem-solve quickly, effectively and safely to keep production lines and systems operating to meet output demands, and can only do that with good all-round knowledge of principles of operation.

It would be fair to say that a good maintenance engineer will require one or two ‘specialist’ skills, with the ability to work in a wide variety of other trade spheres effectively. No longer can employers afford to have a mechanic, an electrician, a pneumatics, a hydraulics and a controls maintenance engineer; this is not cost-effective in manpower terms. Nor is it effective with modern integrated systems. Maintenance engineers now, more than ever, need to be multi-skilled if they are to be truly effective in the workplace. A working knowledge of electronics, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering and software engineering is likely to be required.

Testing the depth of knowledge can be achieved through practical and paper assessments. This could also be carried during ‘trade testing’ during the interview phase, which could also form the basis for a training plan for any prospective candidate.

Whilst fundamental training provided through independent training providers and colleges will provide the basic knowledge and skill sets required of the maintenance engineer, this would only form the start of the behaviour change process that the employer would require. The organisation will need to have in place some sort of support network and training plan that would support the maintenance technician through the transition from basic training to being fully competent in the workplace. There is no substitute for experience, providing that it can be supported with good-quality fundamental engineering knowledge and skills.

How will the Fourth Industrial Revolution change the skills requirements of maintenance workers of tomorrow?

The use of data analytics, new production techniques and the implementation of advanced technologies, such as autonomous robots, multi-purpose production lines and augmented reality, helps to improve yield and speed up production.

Manufacturing will continue to need skilled workers, but they may potentially do different tasks and have different skill sets. Employees will increasingly be hired for knowledge-based production roles as opposed to manual work. These changes will come when over three-quarters of manufacturers are struggling to fill key roles within their business, with an on-going requirement for engineers, software and data scientists.

Should maintenance-related workers be worried about the rise of technology?

There’s lots of debate about robots replacing the workforce, including maintenance-related workers. They won’t so much replace the workforce but change it. The reality is that robots will increasingly be part of the production process; many of them will be ‘cobots’ – collaborative robots that help people do their job faster and better.

What environmental responsibilities do maintenance engineers have?

The main drive in modern manufacturing is to reduce costs wherever possible, and one of the main areas for this is in energy consumption. More and more of the training outcomes set by industry through the various awarding bodies highlight the need for maintenance engineers, along with other types of employees, to be aware of the need to develop and maintain operating systems and production lines to run at peak efficiency to reduce energy consumption.

Additionally, any processes, systems or typical equipment that contain hazardous materials, for example, will be a concern, as will the environmental impact of any release of materials. There, the focus is on the legal requirements of the EPA and results of enforcement activity.

How can people get into industrial maintenance-related apprenticeships?

Manufacturers use apprenticeships to acquire the skills they need now and in the future. Apprenticeships are for everyone – for new entrants, but also existing employees.

If you are a new entrant, you can find yourself an apprenticeship when you finish your GCSEs, your A-Levels or vocational education equivalent, or even if you start university and realise it’s not for you. You can check out companies’ websites themselves or you can search for an apprenticeship on – this is a great channel as you may find opportunities with companies you didn’t know existed.

If you’re an existing employee, you too can start an apprenticeship at any point in your career. With the introduction of the Apprenticeship Levy we are seeing more and more companies offer apprenticeships to existing members of staff.

The government is pushing new Technical Levels (T-Levels). How will these affect maintenance-related industrial jobs?

T-Levels will be the technical equivalent to A-Levels when they are rolled out in 2020/21 ( They are two-year classroom-based programmes, primarily aimed at supporting young people into skilled employment. A T-Level will consist of five components: technical qualification; English, maths and digital requirement; three-month industry placement; occupational-specific requirements; and further employability, enrichment and pastoral provision.

Students can undertake a T-Level in any of the same 15 routes as the apprenticeship routes, but unlike an apprenticeship, students will not finish the programme ‘fully competent’, but rather ‘threshold competent’, as our members have pushed for. This lends itself to T-Levels being a foundation or stepping stone to a higher or advanced apprenticeship in, for example, maintenance-related industrial sectors. T-Levels focus on giving students a breadth of knowledge in their chosen route, and can, if implemented correctly, act as a pipeline of talent into apprenticeships.

The introduction of T-Levels will also mean all other Level 3 qualifications are replaced with T-Levels, as we move to a simpler system. This will help young people to see a clear pathway to success in technical education. With the Department for Education estimating 90,000 students will pursue T-Levels when they are first rolled out in 2020/21, it remains to be seen how many will pursue the engineering and manufacturing route, and whether this is enough to help fill the growing skills gap.

Nevertheless, their success hinges very much on the meeting and delivering the three-month industry placements.

As one of five components – and the top concern for manufacturers – offering three-month placements will prove challenging. In our conversations with manufacturers over the summer, we found that due to legal compliance and health and safety, some manufacturers can’t offer placements to students under the age of 18. These constraints will no doubt limit the number of operations able to deliver placements, and thereby potentially derailing the success of T-Levels in our sector.

In STEM outreach programmes, is ‘engineering’ shouted about as much as science, technology and maths?

We can also include design and technology (D&T) in that bracket. There were only 4,972 students that took engineering at GCSE – as a proportion of all students, this accounts for 0.1%. It is also a significant drop on the number that sat engineering last year – 7,011. We’ve seen a similar trend for the number of students taking D&T at GCSE, albeit in larger numbers. This year 127,232 students took D&T at GCSE, compared to 165,815 last year. The fall in students taking both these subjects is partly down to delivery cost.

Verity Davidge will be discussing how businesses and academia can help alleviate the skills problem in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics at Maintec 2018. The keynote opening session on ‘Closing the skills gap in maintenance-related industrial sectors’ takes place from 10:15-10:40 on 7 November in the Insights Theatre.

Adam Offord

Related Companies
EEF (Engineering Employers Federation)
Western Business Exhibitions Ltd

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