UK companies need to upskill STEM to support innovation

17th July 2019
Joe Bush

The Times recently reported that there is a STEM skills gap in the UK. Manufacturing, engineering and the supply chain are becoming increasingly digitalised, and it has become difficult for the workforce to keep up. Handling the data behind these processes requires specific skills that are in demand by employers who are attempting to close that gap. Su Loftus, Head of Training Products at the National Physical Laboratory explains.

Long before the first robots, humans already feared that machines would steal their jobs. Since English weaver Ned Ludd first reportedly destroyed a knitting machine, technological innovation has often been portrayed as a threat to human employment. Now we know that it will provide valuable opportunities across industry in terms of innovation and efficiency.

Automation can bring great improvements in efficiency, but to automate and streamline repetitive tasks, we first need to know how to grapple with huge amounts of information and data that did not exist before.

To maximise the benefits of automation, employees need confidence that their data is fit for purpose. They must be able to read, interpret and validate new data, as well as understand the context in which it was collected. Furthermore, they should be able to consider measurement uncertainty, a term that is not widely known or reported.

As Deloitte and others have pointed out, the workforce has struggled to keep up with this need in the jobs market, creating a skills gap that only experienced workers can fill. Currently, many workers are lacking the skillset needed to succeed in Industry 4.0. The jobs are here, but where are the people? The skills gap may leave an estimated 2.4 million positions unfilled between 2018 and 2028. Further, the positions relating to digital talent, skilled production, and operational managers may be three times as difficult to fill in the next three years.

STEM jobs need filling 

The British Chamber of Commerce also revealed earlier this year that the manufacturing sector is facing its biggest skills shortage in 30 years. Automation offers new jobs, but many do not have the skillset required to take them, and with the potential risks of Brexit looming, the skills gap threatens to become unbridgeable in the UK without action.

In the US, skills training has been a priority for companies over the past few years. The UK stands to miss out on opportunities in a range of sectors, with the list of unfilled, highly-skilled positions increasing daily and many workers lacking the essential skills in measurement to fill them.

Taking advantage of large amounts of useful data requires an understanding of precise, accurate measurement. From the aerospace sector to quantum mechanics, any industrial process relies on measurement.

In fact, the nature of high-precision industries, like energy, mean that accurate measurements are crucial for innovation. This is a large contribution to the economy. It is estimated that £600bn of products and services sold in the UK every year are based on measurements of their quantity and quality.

Engineers can develop the skills that will allow them to read and use complex information and data. As they become better at transforming data into actionable insight, automation outcomes improve and productivity is increased.

Unfortunately, these measurement skills are not consistently taught in schools or universities. When companies realised the value of equipping workers with measurement skills, they started looking for education providers in the manufacturing sector.

STEM course development 

It was in response to this demand from the industry that the team at the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) developed its measurement skills training courses. As the UK’s National Measurement Institute, the NPL is well placed to encapsulate its own measurement skills into courses that can effectively enter into the workforce.

Rolls Royce, Lockheed Martin, and BAE Systems are some of the high profile manufacturing companies that have already worked with NPL to deliver measurement courses for its staff and overcome this issue. The relevance and applicability of the NPL courses is demonstrated from the breadth of industries that undertake studies – including aerospace, automotive, defence, security, calibration and test, instrument manufacturers, energy, and space.

Metrology is the science of measurement and it teaches employees how to question and plan new processes, improve cost-effectiveness and increase the quality of products. Employers can generate a high investment return on training thanks to upskilled workers supporting quality and innovation through enhanced measurement capability. Practical and theory-based sessions are paired up, to ensure good measurement practices are not only learnt but also applied, so learners are able to make a difference within their workplaces. An increase in productivity and profitability can be seen from acquired skills.

Engineers, manufacturers and machine operators come from a range of different backgrounds, with varying experience and different levels of understanding regarding the use of measuring equipment. For these reasons, training must be tailored to the company to ensure that the whole team will have a standardised knowledge of metrology.

Dawson Precision Components (DPC) - a Lancashire-based engineering firm producing components - offers a clear example of how manufacturing benefits from measurement training. Knowledge of geometric symbols and tolerances, of drawing interpretation and of the conditions or inaccuracies that can affect measurement, are all practical skills that operators developed with training.

Learning how to handle data is not simply pointing measuring tools at an artefact and reading numbers - it’s about understanding what this information means. Without context, data is meaningless. How do we know if the information gathered is precise or accurate enough for purpose? This is a question that only those who share common knowledge of measurement can answer meaningfully. Workers who acquire this level of understanding will be the ones to master Industry 4.0.


Measurement training is not only profitable for employers willing to improve productivity, employees also benefit from additional education in this area. Metrology proficiency is not limited to improved numeracy, it empowers employees by giving them the confidence to question, plan and challenge. In fact, once they have been equipped with measurement abilities, engineers can then develop their soft skills.

When talking about the skills gap, technical competencies are often highlighted. In reality, companies are now more than ever looking for engineers and operators who can think critically, be creative, manage and engage with people. Training empowers uniquely human skills, supporting employees and businesses, driving innovation and efficiency.

Private companies and the public sector in the UK can benefit from training in measurement skills, to support innovation and better understand uncertainties. With the Fourth Industrial Revolution truly underway, UK companies have the chance to be an upskilled, leading force.

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