Addressing the skills shortage

By Ian Latimer, managing director of Emmegi (UK).

Deloitte recently published a survey claiming that 26% of non-British workers are thinking of leaving the UK by 2020, and 36% by 2022. For the large numbers of fabricators who employ migrant workers, those are fairly chastening figures.

Obviously, not all of these non-British workers will be skilled, but it does highlight just what a pressing issue the skills shortage could become in this industry post Brexit. The CBI has just reported the highest number of companies in four years saying that a shortage of workers is limiting their investment plans, and the Local Government Association has claimed that the skills shortage could leave the UK £90 billion a year worse off in the future, with four million too few highly skilled people by 2024 and six million too many with low skills.

I know from our own experience that we are having to work harder than ever to recruit and retain high quality staff, as we are competing with business across the engineering sector for skilled technical staff, and this is something being widely reported across the industry.

The CAB’s newest quarterly survey shows that the aluminium sector remains confident about the future though, with a 56% net balance for the year ahead on expectations for growth, and a significant 63% planning investment in plant and equipment.

From our perspective as a machinery supplier, that’s obviously very encouraging, even more so when seen in the context of a shortage of both skilled and unskilled labour. The right machinery allows manufacturers to automate more of their processes and essentially produce more with less; and potentially that is precisely what the skills shortage will require fabricators to do.

We have seen record levels of investment by fabricators in Emmegi machines over the past two years, partly as a way to protect their margins, and partly to address what has been called the UK’s ‘productivity crisis’. Increasingly though, investment is also being seen as a way to protect against the skills shortage, particularly in machines that can be operated by relatively low skilled staff.

For example, we have sold more of our high volume 12-axis Quadra machining centres this year than ever before. We position the Quadra as the machine that can do the work of a whole team because it can cut, machine and transom notch all in one operation.

It reduces the amount of human handling required to an absolute minimum, with features such as: 360º machining of profiles without needing to turn the bar over or process more than once; and continuous processing without the machine stopping for profile repositioning.

Last year we supplied Quadra L1 machines to Express Bi-Folds in Leeds and Duggan Systems in Ireland, and this year we have supplied the updated Quadra L2 version to both Unique Window Systems and KAT UK, with further orders received from Everglade, Sapa and Ireland’s Windows and Rooflights.

A Quadra machine can replace stand-along sawing and machining centres, so it offers immediate benefits in efficiency and flexibility.

There is also little or no profile related tooling making it ideal for customers who are fabricating in a number of different systems – it can even process bars of different profiles in the same loading and machining operation.

I recognise that the Quadra represents a sizeable investment, but lots of the businesses we are talking to now say that this can be offset by the fact that they don’t than also have to invest in recruiting and training new operators. As the skills shortage really starts to bite, that is likely to become even more costly and time consuming, and I think the benefits of machines like the Quadra will become even more evident.