It feels like a long time since we spoke about much other than this global pandemic which has turned most of the world on its head, but as we tentatively plan ahead to days where lockdown may relax, and our economy starts to rebuild, now would be a good time to remind ourselves of what was important before. For critical topics, it would be easy to come up with a handful, a top five perhaps for those of us who like our lists. But for the Engineering sector, if you had to pick one and one only, which would it be?

Prior to the impact of coronavirus, above even separations and emergencies, the number one talking point in the engineering community has been skills, or rather the lack of them both across the board but especially in a few key areas where delivery is only served through work based learning. I generally see little value in looking backwards too often, but here the stark statistic that UK apprenticeships declined by 53% between 1981 and 1987 illustrates perfectly the beginning of the wonky bathtub curve that charts the typical age distribution in our industry. Manufacturing companies cite average age profiles at best around late 40’s and more likely early 50’s, with a rising year on year shortage of critical skills as retirements reduce the resource pool. The impact of this has been felt acutely, with companies citing lost business opportunities as demand has outstripped capacity, and shortages have mostly been made up by less efficient stopgaps.

In recent years, the response has however been encouraging, with double-digit-percentage increases in Modern Apprentices, and momentum building in the excellent additions of Foundation and Graduate Apprentices. The coronavirus pandemic has underlined how critical these skills are to the development of a flexible manufacturing sector that is ready to meet whatever challenge arrives next, as it surely will.

So far so good, but as we witness every day, this is not only a devastating health crisis but has rapidly become an unprecedented economic impact as well. Engineering companies are openly talking about strategies for survival, and unfortunately our history has shown that those strategies often impact training budgets first. A twin edged impact could be that some inevitable company reductions in staffing levels will temporarily add skilled labour to the market, masking the underlying impact of skills losses from our ageing profile, leaving the concern that if we don’t react, we will simply schedule delivery of a bigger skills problem when our economy rebalances in whatever the new normal looks like.

For this, Industry leadership certainly has its part to play in that, and anyone who can knows they must hold their commitment to apprenticeships to protect the future of our industry. For many companies however, their good habits will come to a reluctant pause as they must prioritise staying in business over investing in skills needed for an uncertain future. All of this ties to a wider concern for the employment prospects once again for school leavers, with recent reports estimating up to one million under 25 year olds will face unemployment as a result of the forecasted recession.

So to return to that important question we should look for the opportunity to match a clearly concerning problem, and another glance backwards tells us that it’s likely that our governments will seek to offset the impact of unemployment in this age group. This is a perfect time to hold up to the light the programmes we chose to mitigate this impact during recovery from the financial crisis and ask honest questions about just how effective they were.

Our current condition presents an opportunity to invest in the skills for a critical sector that more than most will suffer if action is not taken to address a shortfall. A programme of prioritised funding that will incentivise companies to maintain their levels of apprentice training, will help preserve a critical sector to our economy, and ensure that precious spend will deliver the actual positive impact intended.

Paul Sheerin is chief executive of Scottish Engineering.