Developing Innovation Talent for 21st Century Manufacturing & Engineering

On the 11th January 2023, the Innovation Alliance WM held its latest Innovation Policy and Practice event, hosted at the Make UK’s (The Manufacturers Organisation) Technology Hub. As usual, the event brought together industry, academia and public sector stakeholders. On this occasion the topic was the challenge of ensuring we encourage a pipeline of fresh talent into the West Midlands manufacturing and engineering sector.

The sector faces the double issue of an ageing workforce and the perception that working within this sector is outdated. Yet with great strides being made in the adoption and development of digital and emerging technologies, the sector can bring new and exciting opportunities for the next generation. This event was part of a conversation on regional needs, levers of influence and models of best practice, to investigate how, as a collective, we might re-invigorate the perception of the sector and create pathways that both excite and entice young people to be the manufacturing and engineering workforce of the future.

After a welcome and introduction from Chris Corkan of Make UK and Pam Waddell of the Innovation Alliance WM, the panellists spoke about what their organisations were doing to tackle the challenge of getting a pipeline of fresh talent into the West Midlands manufacturing and engineering sector.

Terri Holtom – Business Development Manager at Make UK

Terri started by highlighting the need for skills development quoting the prediction that 85% of jobs in 2030 don’t yet given the rate of change of technology.

Make UK’s work in developing apprentices across a range of disciplines, both technical and managerial. To attract more young people into the increasingly high-tech world of manufacturing, they have developed initiatives including a STEM room at the Make UK Technology Hub, to introduce and inspire secondary age children to manufacturing; using their apprentices as young ambassadors; an employers’ kitemark for good training.

To address issues of perception of manufacturing and the lack of diversity of role models, Make UK is developing communications channels that suit young people – we were treated to a Tik Tok video, produced by the Make UK Apprentices, to showcase how diverse and exciting apprenticeships could be.

Mick Westman – Founder at Digital Innovators

Mick explained he had two passions – Birmingham, where he lived all his life, and supporting young people. Founding Digital Innovators was an opportunity to bring these together.

He pointed out that the West Midlands has the highest number of under 24s in the country and the highest unemployment in this age group. His organisation was working with young people from various backgrounds to help them to realise and unlock their potential and value in the workplace, based on their ‘digital native’ skills. Digital innovators particularly works with young people without real direction or confidence who are not thriving in traditional education and training, offering a very different approach. As he put it ‘you can’t teach a fish to climb trees…’

The approach Mick explained starts with the needs of employers and matches young people with the skills to address their challenges. The business gets positive returns in terms of getting problems solved as well as access to digital skills. The young people and employees work together so skills are shared two-way, from existing workforce to young people, and vice-versa.  Ultimately this providing stronger businesses and a more developed workforce and a new pool of potential employees.

Jackie Padmore – Senior Delivery Manager (Education Development & Partnerships) and David Tomalin – Deliver Manager (Strategic Key Accounts) at WMCA

Jackie and David highlighted that the West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) manages the Adult Education Budget (19 +) for the region, dispersing around £150m/ year to FE colleges etc. They are tailoring the funding to local business needs, as defined in the WM Plan for Growth.  Some key aspects of their work include Apprenticeship Levy Fund, which allows funding from larger companies to be used be smaller ones allowing them to take on an apprentice when otherwise not viable; Sector Work Based Academy Programmes (SWAPs), with a a strong link to employers to ensure relevant skills for our region; a pilot project focusing on individuals before they enter into an apprenticeship and helping settle in for the first three months by providing mentoring and coaching support. Specifically relating to digital and ‘new sectors’, they are currently supporting digital bootcamps, training in building retrofit and digital innovation hubs in colleges.

A key message Jackie and David put across was that although other areas are attracting inward investment through offering cash incentives, the West Midlands has the opportunity to use our skills base to attract companies and improve our economic situation, working with the WM Growth Company.

Sal and Hannah – Make UK Apprentices

We were privileged to hear from two second year apprentices about their pathways into work and training. They shared their desire to have a hands-on role and also to look to the future as the type of job options are changing, citing the introduction of robotics into production roles. Both apprentices regretted that apprenticeships had not been mentioned to them as a potential route to work at school, but they were benefiting from being in a good role with great people and being paid well to learn.


A number of questions and points were raised during the discussion:

  • Should key employment areas such as manufacturing of construction material be included rather than the restricted list in the Growth Plan?
  • A general call to action to join up more what was happening across the region in terms of skills needs and development to support innovation.
  • Concerns around how slowly business is adopting digital technologies and addressing sustainability needs leads to the conclusion that as well as teaching young people technical skills we need to the existing workforce how to continually learn and adapt.
  • We should make a stronger link between skills and adopting innovation – the latter is constrained without the right talent.
  • Manufacturing and Engineering continue to be exciting, rewarding and challenging fields of work.  Two upcoming opportunities to celebrate manufacturing were highlighted:
    • National Manufacturing Day is being repeated after last year’s success (date TBC)

A final round up from the panel of points:

Mick: We need to create opportunities and challenges for young people to bring them into manufacturing, eg can we create a ‘future museum’ with jobs and technologies to inspire young people

Terri: Today has emphasised the need for collaborative working and sharing of resources, eg people are encouraged to use the Make UK STEM Room

Jackie: There is a need for more working together, with WMCA, to and address skills gaps.

David: We need to influence careers advice locally and he encouraged employers to support initiatives like the apprenticeship ambassador network.

Innovation Policy and Practice events are delivered several times a year. Keep your eye out for future dates here.