Mind the gap: Interview with Mike Houghton, Siemens Industry

Written by: Tim Fryer | Published:

Through his day job at Siemens Industry along with his various other roles, Mike Houghton is on a mission to address the skills gap and develop the next generation of engineers. But are these engineers good enough? Do they even exist? Tim Fryer finds out.

Mike Houghton's responsibilities as Siemens divisional director include managing 300 engineers. Recently, his group looked at its formation in the future and the skills gap its discovered bears relevance to the British engineering industry as a whole. With its normal attrition rate, and drop off as people near retirement age, the group estimated that in five years half of its engineers will be new to the Siemens business. The company is facing a startling reality and it's one that is true across industry.

Houghton said: "We need to go back to the drawing board and think about how we are going to bridge this gap. Our current methods of bringing new people into the business need to be enhanced and we need to do something different in the short and medium term."

Most companies will have heard about this skills shortage, but few will have done such an exercise to define the problem. But why do we have this problem in the first place – is it down to the way engineering is taught in schools?

"I think you have to contextualise it," said Houghton. "Maths and physics, by themselves, aren't very interesting. But if you contextualise it, show how maths and physics can support them in a career, that is when it becomes interesting. Formula One cars don't work without people who understand maths and physics."

Conceding that not everyone can get a job in Formula One, Houghton believes it has the glamour and excitement to show young people the appeal of working on high end engineering.

"It is that sort of passion that we need to ignite at an early phase," he said. "Just giving them physics is not going to do it unless they have a real bent for it, as I did. You have to capture the imagination, the earlier the better, between 7 and 11 is the ideal time."

There is no silver bullet, but Houghton believes it is the role of teachers first and then 'STEM ambassadors' that will make a difference.

"I think everyone in positions like mine, within the engineering industry, has an obligation to get involved with young people, get them involved earlier and try to create a passion for engineering," he said.

Despite this 'obligation', Houghton said industry should only send out the right representatives. "If people are motivated to do it, they will do a great job inspiring young people in STEM subjects. I don't think we should try to mandate it – it is either in you or it isn't."

One of the difficulties faced by schools is the range of initiatives on offer – sorting out which robotic contest or factory visit will be of most advantage to them when it comes to fulfilling curriculum obligations.

Siemens has an information portal for key stages 2 and 3 designed to give students the chance to manage their own manufacturing and engineering facility. This aims to attract 1.9 million British schoolchildren by the end of this year and 4 million by the end of 2016. Another scheme is E3, which offers students holiday employment through school and university so they are more prepared for the workplace on graduation.

Such diverse offerings highlight the problem which schools face, albeit a good problem to have. Houghton said: "It is great that companies do this good stuff, but there is no coordination between what companies are doing. With hundreds of such initiatives, which ones do you pick?"

A lack of coordination and consistency is also at the heart of Government thinking according to Houghton. "We need longevity," he adds. "If employers and academics are going to have faith in something, it needs to be a cross party, long term strategy. That is the most important thing for us in industry."

Houghton pointed to the positive moves to 'rebalance' the economy with a greater emphasis on manufacturing. However, compared with Germany's 'Industry 4.0', or US 'Industry Renaissance', he is concerned that 'rebalancing' could be less specific and interpreted in different ways as time goes on. "But," he said, "at the moment, I am pleased with what this Government has set out to do. And UTCs started out in the previous Government, so that is a bit of cross party thinking."

UTCs (University Technical College) are still in their infancy; the first opened in 2010 and now there are 17. Nevertheless, the first students are starting to come off that particular production line.

"I am very impressed by them," claimed Houghton. "One of the things they do as part of the curriculum is to teach students to be competent orators – debating engineering topics in a group. I thought these students are miles ahead of the standard students I have met."

But is the Government doing enough? It seems widely accepted that the shortage of engineers, in terms of the 'pipeline' of new graduates coming through, will last until at least 2020. Is there more the Government could do?

Houghton suggested: "It could come up with additional incentives to support engineering. For instance, if we are struggling to attract more students into engineering type degrees, we could offer reduced fees in areas where the economy needs some sort of additional support. That might be a way of stemming the short term gap."

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