Ask any manufacturer what the biggest threat facing the industry is and you’ll get a range of answers – Brexit, automation, difficulties in sourcing finance. However, there is one threat that makes all the rest pale into insignificance. The skills shortage is threatening to cripple the long-term future of the manufacturing industry. The British Chamber of Commerce warned at the start of this year that the sector is facing its greatest skills shortage in 30 years, which the Open University says will cost as much as £2bn per year.

Leading the charge against the looming crisis is Susan Scurlock, founder of Primary Engineer and Secondary Engineer, who this month launched the Institutions of Primary Engineers and Secondary Engineers at the House of Lords. Primary Engineer and Secondary Engineer aim to bring industry into the classroom, giving pupils a first-hand view of how engineers and manufacturers operate.

Manufacturing Management sat down with Susan, who was awarded an MBE in the Queen’s New Year’s honours this year, to find out more about the work she is doing in promoting the industry to the next generation.

MM: What is the story of Primary Engineer?

SS: As a secondary school teacher, I saw that kids had already given up. I think it’s criminal that children can be in school for as long as they are and not feel that they can go out and get a good career at the end of it. When I was teaching, we lost a lot of kids that had literally just given up and didn’t see the point. At the time, I thought that if you could get kids designing things and making them, and linking that with local engineering firms to provide context, it would change the way that kids engage with STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) education, and the way that teachers engage with industry. In 2005, I applied for a fund from the Department of Trade and Industry and was lucky enough to receive three years of funding to set up what is now Primary Engineer. I then had to give everything up to go and do that. It involved taking a bit of a deep breath, but if I hadn’t done it then I wouldn’t be where I am now. The rest, as they say, is history.

MM: Do teachers focus enough on STEM and its value?

SS: Schools are very much tied to what they have to deliver in terms of educational outcomes. They are also very limited by the number of teachers available to teach the necessary subjects. We originally focused on primary education: primary teachers, by and large, have no industrial background. They don’t know what industry looks like. Teacher training is all focused around classroom management and how to run a class; there isn’t a place for STEM to naturally fit in. The metrics of the system dictate the outcomes, and at the moment the metrics don’t allow for a lot of help when it comes to STEM skills. The training we provide through Primary Engineer tries to contextualise learning and provide a method of project-based learning so teachers can apply skills in the right places. We’ve found that it works brilliantly with primary schools but less well in secondaries, where subjects are taught in siloes and any crossover of learning is harder to implement. Teachers have to constantly find ways to circumvent the system to ensure that teachers are able to teach things that the kids will do better with.

MM: How has this style of teaching been received?

SS: Last year we worked with 3,500 teachers. One of our top metrics is whether someone would recommend us to someone else, and we have a 99% hit rate on that. Teachers see the value of it, it’s just down to the bandwidth within the system for them to be able to apply it. One of the strategies we’ve used is to come up with a number of different projects, to avoid teachers having to repeat what they teach from one lesson to the next. We want to stress that engineering comes in many different forms – it’s a diverse industry, with loads of different jobs that people can do.

MM: Has industry itself seen the benefit?

SS: Industry has been outstanding. The projects we’ve designed have been done to provide engineers with flexibility based on their availability. If they only have an hour, they can do an online interview with kids across the UK; if they have a day or two, they can go along to an event. We have the only palindrome in the industry: engineers inspiring children inspiring engineers. We set out to get children inspired by engineering, and the industry has been great at helping us do that. When we came up with the idea for the Leaders’ Award, where we ask kids ‘if you were an engineer, what would you do?’, we found that the children were also inspiring the engineers – they were walking out with smiles on their faces and with expanded minds. We then got companies coming to us asking to be a part of it, because they knew their staff would get a lot out of it.

MM: It also gives you faith in the future, and that yes, there are some bright minds out there

SS: One pupil who’s gone through our programme came up with the idea of a flat-pack wind turbine for refugee camps. Glasgow Caledonian University is going to build it, after working with the Catapult sites; it’s grown from strength to strength and had loads of people working on it – all from one child’s bright idea. This year we have nine ideas coming into reality through universities; next year we have 17 universities in the build process. There’s a physical output from these children’s ideas.

MM: That must be so inspiring for the kids themselves, as well.

SS: I would strongly suggest that that child will be inspired down a STEM route in the future. Some of the younger children we work with also have some great ideas. One idea I really liked came from a four-year-old, who designed a system to spray water through a prism on top of a radio, so they could dance under rainbows.

MM: All this begs the question: where does it go wrong for these kids? How are they losing the affinity for coming up with ideas?

SS: It’s been an issue for a long time, and one we’re no closer to resolving – the idea that some subjects should be taught discretely, and others should be taught through project-based learning. The current system, especially as it progresses through secondary school, isn’t set up for that kind of approach. When we were designing the Institutes, we were keen to take skills from across all subject areas and enthuse kids with ownership – these are their skills, and they have developed them. We want them to engage with a range of projects across a number of subject areas, whether inside or outside of school. It’s all about the development of a range of skills.

MM: Does industry have an image problem in schools? Especially the ‘hard’ subjects like physics and maths.

SS: From the work we’ve done in primary schools, kids of that age love being engineers. As you move up into secondary, one of the big problems is that you need physics to take engineering to university level and beyond. If there’s a shortage of physics teachers, or the subject isn’t being offered, then the children are being pushed over to chemistry or biology, where they will achieve the grades they are expected to achieve. There are barriers that aren’t about choice. Kids that want to pursue a career in engineering and are keen to study physics at secondary school may not be able to because the schools can’t teach it. If universities stopped requiring physics for their engineering degrees, that would bring about a change in the system. It all boils down to opportunity – can the children that want to take the relevant lessons, do so?

MM: Can industry do more? For every company that’s taking it on board there will be more that aren’t engaged at all.

SS: There’s the old Chinese proverb that says the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago; the second-best time is now. There may be kids that won’t enter the industry for 10 or 15 years, but if they don’t know what your company does then they won’t ever come to you. There is a need for industry to share what it does with everyone. Our head office is in Burnley, which is an incredible place. There are so many engineering companies and manufacturers based there, but nobody knows about them. If these companies aren’t talking about themselves, how will anyone ever know they exist? It’s vital that they have a story to tell. Most companies realise this, and that they have to get involved with schools. One of my pleas to companies looking to do more would be to get behind the organisations that are already doing it, instead of coming up with their own ideas. Support the ones that have a great reputation and real results.