See it and you can be it – know it and you can grow it – transparency will unlock the UK’s skills conundrum

The issue of skills is rarely out of the news headlines, as the UK, alongside many countries around the globe, grapples with the challenge of best preparing its workforce for the roles of today and tomorrow. Against this backdrop, ISG embarked on a research project to look at the skills debate through a different lens – using built environment planning data as the catalyst for a national skills master planning strategy.

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ISG's COO Zoe Price  was joined by speakers from The Science Museum Group, Rolls Royce SMR and University College Birmingham for a panel discussion around ISG's latest research

This white paper – ‘Rethinking the skills conundrum: Connecting the dots between people, place and productivity’ was launched at The Science Museum in London, with a panel of experts debating how this novel approach could prove transformational for UK plc. Joining Zoe Price, Global Chief Operating Officer at ISG were Susan Raikes, Director of Learning at The Science Museum Group, David White, Chief Operating Officer at Rolls-Royce (RR) SMR and Rosa Wells, Executive Dean for Engineering, Digital and Sustainable Construction at University College Birmingham.

Download ISG's latest research here
Zoe kicked off the session by asking the panel if we could make data on built infrastructure investment decisions more accessible to everyone with a vested interest in creating a demand-led pipeline of future talent, could this support their organisational ambitions and objectives. 

From Rosa’s perspective, Birmingham is slightly further ahead in terms of devolution, and its approach to looking at the adult education skills budget means: “…we've been working really closely with our combined authority to look at what does that skills mapping exercise look like regionally? So what are employers telling us that we need, and what do colleges and universities need to develop in response? Where we can be really agile and put short courses on quickly to upskill, and where we need a longer series of pipelines.” Linking up nationally is so important to give that overview of demand and avoid duplication.  

ISG hosted an event to celebrate the launch of 'Rethinking the skills conundrum'

David quickly articulated the urgency of the skills challenge from his role at the helm of the nascent small modular reactor green energy sector. “We’ve got a perfect storm over the next five years with wind, solar and hydrogen all competing in the same skills marketplace. All of these green technologies are coming online at the same time, in addition to significant growth and demand in the existing advanced manufacturing sectors.” Stressing the importance of supply chain and infrastructure investment too, David can see a labour and skills crunch coming if we do not change the way we plan our talent pipeline. 
Echoing Rosa’s comments around greater national collaboration, David highlighted the challenge of visiting schools and colleges to showcase the range of training and career opportunities within RR SMR, only to find that a large number of peer organisations have already visited, or are due to visit to make a similar pitch to the young students – many of whom are already narrowing their focus to AI and technology pathways. 
For David, “We’re not adequately investing in hand-based skills and engineering expertise to create the infrastructure that supports technology and AI. We need to build an industrial platform for the UK and we are running out of time.”  
Susan’s mission is one of inspiration for all generations of visitors to The Science Museum – to inspire futures. “The new Technicians: The David Sainsbury Gallery, which opened in November, takes a more direct approach to our skills challenge. It's a museum gallery, it's fun and interactive and has been designed specifically for 11-to-16-year-olds, visually showing what careers are available. We have a Live programme, where young technicians at the start of their careers, lead workshops in the gallery, and they're only a few years older than the young people they're teaching and working with. Very much aligned with the philosophy that you can only be it, if you see it.”

Download ISG's research here

Susan points to research the museum carried out with academics at King's College and UCL to measure people's engagement with science. In her words – “The results are pretty scary. So you can have high, medium or low science capital (interest/engagement). The research was conducted with secondary school pupils, most of whom hadn't made their GCSE choices yet, and it showed that only 5% of young people had high science capital. So only 5% of these young people were saying ‘I could build your nuclear power station, or I could be a doctor’ - only that tiny percentage has made that decision.” The majority of this 5% cohort were male and from more affluent backgrounds.
Susan highlighted there were 60% of responders in the middle, who could be swayed either way, and “Those are the ones we really want to get into the museum and persuade. But there's 27% of young people who are not yet 15 years old who've already rejected STEM pathways, they've already said it's too hard. It's not for me, I'm not interested.” Effectively you’ve narrowed the funnel that feeds your talent pipeline by over a quarter in those formative years. “This is the space where our STEM ambassadors work – bringing young people into the museum as a neutral, less scary place to inspire and discover something new to open minds.” 

In response to Zoe’s question about the issue of inward investment, and how an approach bringing greater transparency to planned physical infrastructure spending could reap rewards, David was first to offer his perspective. 

Citing what’s happening in the Czech Republic, they’re switching from an economy that’s invested heavily in automotive, to a skills and knowledge base that’s now themed around a Fit for Nuclear programme. As a nation, the country is betting big on the nuclear industry to drive growth and prosperity. 
Not specifically advocating such a singularly focused approach for the UK – despite his obvious bias for the sector, David was keen to stress that the skills network that extends around nuclear can be broadly defined as 50% construction and 50% technology. The critical interconnections between sectors and skills mean that we must have a clear pathway and roadmap to skills master planning to support the industries and sectors that are going to be key contributors to the UK’s growth and prosperity. 

The panel discussed ISG's research at The Science Museum

Ominously David pointed out the simple truth “If we have those skills shortages here in the UK – we’ll inevitably be forced to look overseas, because we have no other choice. Trying to persuade global manufacturers and supply chain partners to invest in physical infrastructure in the UK to support RR SMR is made immeasurably more difficult if we cannot point to a sustainable skills and talent pipeline that will work in these new facilities.”   

Rosa’s experience working with engineering consultancy firms indicates that when you scale up the collaborations, you can make a meaningful impact on skills shortages. Around seven years ago a group was convened to address a shortage of technicians in the sector. “While these firms were competing for contracts and business, they were all looking for the same skills. By coming together and agreeing on common skill sets, we were able to work with them to develop the apprenticeship that they needed. They could find locations in different areas of the country where they were confident that those colleges or universities would deliver against those skills, and it gave them the sort of negotiation power to be able to find the right skills for them.” 

“So if we can get business working more closely together with each other in the skill space, it will make us all stronger, because then we're not just competing and poaching staff, we're actually developing a stronger pipeline.” Rosa also mentioned the importance of lifelong learning and not just seeing this as an issue for young people – there’s a broad resource and talent pool within the UK. 

ISG’s report highlighted a concerning trend that organisations in the UK are actually investing less today in skills than their counterparts in the EU and beyond. Zoe asked the panel if greater accessibility to data mapping workplace opportunity with the skills demanded by industry/sector could redress this imbalance.  

David forecasts that RR SMR will create 18,000 new jobs in the supply chain alone – but he also highlights the importance of the company’s role in encouraging overseas organisations to invest in the UK because “I want UK jobs and UK infrastructure to benefit from our sovereign technology. We’ve got to show these overseas organisations that we have a skills road map, we have the skills they need and the investment will then follow.”

Rosa flags the under-representation and poor gender balance that we have in certain sectors and in STEM pathways. “So looking at networks for female engineers and young engineers to come together to be supported and find mentoring as well will help retain talent.”

Building on this point Susan recognised that “We've all been talking about STEM skills gap and challenging talent pipelines for a long time, and lots of people have been working really hard on it. And still, we have a problem. So the thing that we haven't done, is really join up together and identify, as your report does, and look more collectively at where the challenges and gaps are and what training we need.”

Zoe referenced the report findings around the important influencing role that parents and carers have on the decisions of young people for skills and career planning and asked: “How can we be more joined up to make sure we're really aligning with the aspirations of young people?”
With around five million visitors a year, The Science Museum Group finds itself at the vanguard of fostering those familial interactions around skills. Susan elaborated “What we know from talking to parents and young people and conducting intensive consultation work around the Technicians Gallery, is that young people really need to be able to see themselves in those roles, which is why we focus on people rather than industries or particular roles. It’s also important to stress that they've already got skills that can be used – so team working, problem solving all of those are things that can be used in so many different kinds of careers.”
Referencing research from the report that shows for young people, alignment to their existing skills and interests is really important to them in their future careers, Susan added: “It’s really great to have that that data and the case study on life sciences that shows where an industry or a sector can demonstrate the positive impact it's having on society – it’s really attractive for young people.” Getting the messaging right and tailored to audiences is key -  as is working with institutions good at interpretation, like museums, to get that that message out there.
David flagged that collectively more effort and energy needs to go into establishing a compelling narrative for industry sectors that don’t benefit from current popularity and exposure. “Going into engineering is an exciting career. What we are doing with small modular reactors is ground-breaking and it’s a British product. It’s a career with longevity – our power stations will be running for 60 years – we need to better communicate these benefits to our core audiences.”
Skills shortage | ISG

Construction: the great overlooked tool in our strategic workforce planning

Our latest Wide Angle, ‘Rethinking the skills conundrum’, seeks to connect the dots between people, place and productivity.

We need to all get better at thinking about skills as adaptable and transferable and communicating that changing your mind on career pathways is OK and not a mistake – especially for young people says Rosa. “How do we open up opportunity rather than build barriers? With maths as a topical example – we’re looking at how we develop numeracy up to 18, but we also need to support learners to access maths in a way that works for them, so it doesn’t turn them off. Individuals may not have enjoyed maths in the classroom, but when they get into a workplace and it's problem solving, it's Applied Maths, and it's relevant to them. They can see it differently.”
Echoing this point, Susan highlighted how this captures the concept of science capital. “It's about building on what you already know and seeing where the future can take you from there. It's very much about the language that you use as well. Our new Engineers Gallery is now open and the CEO of the Royal Academy of Engineering talks about engineering in such a way that is really inspiring. But she also says that often the only time that people notice the word engineering is when there's engineering works on the train and their train is delayed. It’s that perception issue that we all need to address.”
Closing the debate, Susan stressed that “It's about taking every single opportunity and touchpoint with young people and their parents, and the careers advisors as well, making sure that they really understand what is available locally and keeping those options open for as long as possible.”
With clear consensus among the panellists around the need to both inspire and provide confidence for all stakeholders in skills investment, ISG’s research helped stimulate a fascinating debate, with some very clear signals from both industry and academia on the need to take a more holistic and transparent approach to skills planning to facilitate the UK’s growth and future prosperity.


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