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But for automation specialist Omron, recruiting and retaining good talent is more important than ever. With the UK’s engineering skills shortage showing no sign of abating, how can today’s smart manufacturers attract the next generation of engineers and secure the long term future of their business?
The automation myth
Omron is a company operating at the forefront of Industry 4.0, developing automation, robotics and artificial intelligence solutions for the packaging and processing, automotive and food and drink industries. These technologies are changing the face of British manufacturing – a government commissioned review concluded that the sector could unlock £455bn over the next few years if it cracks the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
However, the public perception of automation as the job-stealing bogeyman remains, with 34% of British workers seeing automation as a threat to their job security. In fact, the opposite is true, with plenty of evidence to show that robots actually increase employment opportunities. By replacing certain monotonous, repetitive tasks, automation will free up the workforce to take on more challenging, productive roles, while the uptake of Industrial Digitalisation Technologies (IDT) could result in a 25% productivity boost in the UK, creating 175,000 new jobs over the next 10 years.
This has certainly been the case for Omron. Over the past decade, the company has evolved from a high-level component supplier to an automation solutions provider, making a number of strategic acquisitions to complete its portfolio. As a result, its workforce has expanded by 20%. An entire new department – the Industry Solutions team – has been created, while the scope of existing roles has altered dramatically, with many becoming more sophisticated and multi-skilled.
Bridging the skills gap
The need to retain and upskill existing employees and recruit new, high quality staff is certainly reassuring for British workers fearful of the digital revolution. But the scale of the challenge for firms such as Omron cannot be underestimated. Engineering is facing a skills crisis of unprecedented proportions. Annually, 203,000 people with level 3+ engineering skills are needed through to 2024 and the annual shortfall is projected to be at least 59,000. This creates a real dilemma for established manufacturing and engineering firms who are struggling to replace their ageing workforce or enhance their existing operations with fresh talent.
“We have a policy of developing our staff and promoting from within, but as our business expanded, this was only filling 80% of our vacancies,” explains Kirsty Evans-Price, Omron’s HR Manager. “With a lack of suitable candidates applying for roles, we realised we had to do something different – as well as filling new positions, some of our workforce was approaching retirement age and we were in danger of losing entire skill sets from our business. Five years ago, we took the decision to work in conjunction with our local college and take on two apprentices each year, to create our own talent pipeline.”
Rather than viewing them as a temporary quick fix, when an apprentice joins Omron, they are immediately treated like any other permanent and valued member of the team. “We take a long term view of apprentices,” says Omron’s General Manager, Mark Butters. “We run a two-year apprenticeship programme, rotating the recruits every six months around the different departments, such as sales, application development and technical support. This gives them a broad exposure to our business and hopefully enables them to have more choice in their future career path. We make sure they are supported: each apprentice is assigned a mentor; they attend college one day per week; they are given six-weekly review meetings; and are assessed by their tutor every three months while they work towards either an NVQ or BTEC qualification. But there is no question of them leaving the business or failing to gain employment with us after those two years. From the moment they start with us, they are part of Omron – they don’t need to apply for a job once they qualify, as they already have one. It’s a seamless transition, and we are delighted with our 100% apprentice retention rate.”
The company places a huge value on its people, and its commitment to its apprentices doesn’t end there. “The apprenticeship is just the starting point,” explains Mark. “We continue investing in and developing our staff and have the full intention of keeping hold of our people for a long time.” This was evidenced by Omron sponsoring one of their 18-year old apprentices to complete an HNC, then an HND, before supporting him through to completion of a degree in Electrical Engineering at Sheffield Hallam University, for which he received a First. A highly valued member of the team, aged just 24 he is now working as a robotics field application engineer, one of the most technically demanding robotics roles in the business. This was a position which Omron had highlighted as ‘at risk’, as it is very challenging to find suitable candidates in this field.
“When I applied for an apprenticeship role at Omron, I already had a keen interest in programming and leading technology, but I wasn’t sure in which direction I wanted to take my career,” the ex-apprentice said. “Omron enabled me to explore a variety of different sectors within the business and work coherently in a team environment, as well as manage my own time. They have invested in my future, enabling me to complete my Electrical Engineering BEng. This meant I could learn in depth the theoretical background of my role, whilst also being able to apply this to practical situations that I would come across in my day-to-day interactions.”
“I have recently taken on a more specialised role whereby I am responsible for robotic applications, facing new, complex challenges every day and providing solutions nationwide. I would definitely recommend others to consider applying for an apprenticeship. There is a huge demand for engineers and fantastic schemes in place to succeed in this field.”
A bright future
With current and former apprentices making a tangible difference to the business, Omron’s apprenticeship plans continue to grow. In fact, the company is looking to develop a similar graduate scheme and is undergoing a detailed skills analysis to highlight future staff and knowledge shortages and take steps to address them now, before they affect the business. The company is also reviewing areas outside of engineering which could benefit from apprentices, such as the commercial and IT departments.
“Automation may be the future but it relies on good staff to back it up,” says Mark Butters. “Put simply, apprentices are crucial to our future success. Unless businesses like ours invest in young people, we won’t have a business at all.”
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