Published On: Fri, Nov 29th, 2019

A radical rethink?

A new poll suggests we see the skills shortage as the biggest issue facing the industry. Edgetech MD Chris Alderson gives his perspective on the skills gap – and one way we can help to overcome it

An online industry poll confirmed something I’d suspected for a long time – that even with Brexit just around the corner, it’s the skills shortage that’s concerning the industry the most. Why skills more than anything else? Personally, I think it’s probably because there’s no quick fix. It’s perfectly possible we could leave the EU with a deal (even if, at the time of writing, it looks increasingly likely that we won’t). When the industry has needed to, it has made huge strides in sustainability, new product development and improving product efficiency in the space of just a few years. But the skills shortage is different. We can’t just conjure a whole generation of skilled employees out of nowhere. The Chartered Institute of Builders claims construction will need 157,000 new recruits by 2021, and the Manufacturing Institute puts the total at 3.5 million in the next ten years. For far too long, we’ve not focused anywhere near enough on recruiting and training the next generation of glazing professionals – and every year, more and more of the skilled employees we do have are leaving. Brexit will inevitably have an effect here, too – particularly in the event of no-deal. EU workers make up a considerable proportion of the UK’s manufacturing and construction workforce, and if the current immigration system ends on November 1st, it’s likely to make the skills shortage even worse.

So, as an industry, what can we do about it? As I’ve already said – we can’t magic thousands of skilled employees out of nowhere. Eventually, a new post-Brexit immigration system will be put in place, and that may help the situation. But let’s face it – even the hugely positive and valuable impact made by thousands of EU workers over the last fifteen years wasn’t enough to plug the skills gap.I don’t think we’re ever going to have enough people to continue operating the way we have been in recent decades – and that means a more radical rethink is needed. It’s a hugely complex problem, and any solution is inevitably going to be complex and multifaceted too. But I think automation has a big role to play in resolving the current impasse. For some, automation is a scary word – and there’s no question, it’s a big step to take. But the benefits speak for themselves.

Let’s take IGU manufacturing, our own area of expertise, as an example. A typical rigid spacer application line takes between six to ten skilled employees to operate. On average, that line will produce around 1,200 units per shift. But with one of our high-speed automated lines, you can make more units with less than half the manpower. An automated line takes between three and four employees to operate, and can produce around 1,480 units per shift. That’s an 18% increase in productivity – delivering savings of up to £180k a year. Before long, in other words, automation starts to pay for itself. What I didn’t mention before is that while the skills shortage came out top in poll of big industry concerns, it was a very close result. In second place, just a few percentage points behind, was service and quality – and that’s something that automation can help address to. Let’s go back to my IGU manufacturing example. On the traditional application line, you’ve got up to 10 people operating it. Now, they’re probably very skilled and experienced employees, and good at what they do. But they’re still human. Like all of us, they occasionally make mistakes – and when your manufacturing operation is relying on ten people to be on top of their game all the time, the risk of human error is quite high.

On our automated line, which requires far fewer people and uses robots for the core tasks where precision is crucial, that risk is substantially reduced – more than halved, in fact. What that means in practice is, with automation, you’re paying less, to be more productive, and produce a more reliable standard of product. That’s not to paint automation as some magical solution to all our problems – we’ll always need skilled, dedicated employees. But automation is already allowing businesses to operate more efficiently, to continuously improve, and to up quality and consistency – and as the skills shortage worsens, the benefits of automation are only going to grow.