It has been a good month for getting out to visit companies – a combination of less scheduled meetings and events for me alongside a reality that very few of our manufacturers now take formal holiday shutdowns makes this a great opportunity to see and hear what their successes and challenges are.

Reasons to be cheerful continue to be orders and demand, backlog and order books generally across the board giving comfort that current and future costs will be absorbed, and so long as we are all realistic on those costs – focusing on the things we can control, not those we cannot - profitability and a welcome commercial sustainability can be achieved.

The downsides of energy, materials and logistics costs haven’t gone away, but the consistent block for higher output reported in these conversations is skills, and whilst it’s a truth for all areas, top of the list of roles constraining production are hands-on skills, and the ability to join metals together is often at the top.

A friend’s father delighted in describing his occupation as a “molten metal manipulator”, rightly proud of the welding skillset essential to fabrication and construction of the applications on which our society depends, but choosing to avoid calling himself a welder.

I thought about that phrase recently in wider industry reviews about the shortage of skilled welding and fabrication technicians, a discussion that voiced concern that its attractiveness as a career is a significant challenge to our industry. With companies reporting proportionally lower numbers of applications for welding fabrication apprenticeships, we are worried that its perception isn’t where we need it to be in our schools and colleges, and especially our homes where the greatest influence on career options takes place.

As a skillset, it couldn’t be more essential to themes at the top of our priorities for society. Against our necessity for adequate defence to counter an increasingly unstable international threat, it could not be more critical for the manufacture of the Type 26 and 31 Frigates, with the pipeline beyond that identified in the National Shipbuilding strategy. In every aspect of decarbonisation to reach net zero it’s crucial to the infrastructure needed to achieve that, whether it is floating or fixed offshore wind, tidal generation, hydrogen, renewable heat initiatives, and a continuing list that never stops.

For the reasons why, well we know about the generally low training numbers achieved over the last few decades giving us a top-heavy ageing profile with over 40% of our welders in the 55 to 66 age bracket. And we did a good job of papering over the cracks thanks to an easy supply of our European colleagues via free movement, and so the loss of that source and the resource we already had from it has laid bare the gap.

To address that, we need to do lots of things, but key is to change the tune more generally to underline that welding fabrication is a highly skilled, well-paid career with job security through being at the heart of almost every infrastructure project to the horizon and beyond. We need to get away from the negative and ill-informed sentiment that too often characterises our culture at home and in education that these hands-on engineering skills are old-school and unappealing. By conveying the sense of creativity and satisfaction that forming these essential structures from sheet, curved and tubular metals brings, we can also show that it’s increasingly a skillset complemented by digital automation and assistance. And we need to ensure that this reality is briefed to those who influence career decisions.

In the visits I mentioned, I got to see a great example of the convergence with digital assistance and automation at the official opening of welding consumables manufacturer WB Alloys' new site in Glasgow. As part of their open day set-up, they invited partner companies showcasing welding technology to display on site and one particular technology that caught our attention was an augmented reality welding training device. Using the same equipment as the real thing for authenticity, the ability of this device to guide a complete novice to lay a “weld” whilst prompting the user on important quality factors of weld depth, speed and angle was hugely impressive. As a training tool, each practice weld could be reviewed like replaying a video, and the trainer could “watch in” with individual trainees to see who needs additional help. The real beauty, however, is the saving in time, energy and raw materials – all more precious commodities than ever – as a practice weld can be trialled again and again without using any materials that would otherwise have to go for recycling. It’s a gateway for trainees to the wider world of digital welding through automation of the weld and inspection, underlining that to be skilled in the programming and quality control of digital welding, first of all you need to be a skilled manual welder.

As in so many other sectors, automation has a key role to play in helping overcome our national deficit in skills, but in itself it can only augment and never fully substitute the core skills and capabilities of our people. It is these same skills that helped build our unmatched industrial heritage and will form the foundations of our future as a progressive and productive economy.

Paul Sheerin is chief executive of Scottish Engineering