The future of the steel industry demands skills investment

Martin Barnfield is head of manufacturing at Painter Brothers, part of Balfour Beatty Group

In an era marked by constant change and innovation, companies in the manufacturing and construction sector face a multitude of challenges. With fierce global competition for skilled workers, combined with high domestic material costs, the stakes have never been higher for the UK steel industry.

With changes in regulation and sustainability standards, as well as stark competition throughout supply chains for raw materials, the UK industry must be more agile than ever and adopt a new approach or run the risk of being left behind.

To tackle the resource deficit head-on, we must invest heavily in apprenticeship programmes

One of the biggest challenges that the sector faces is the shortage of skilled workers. With talent being drawn to different corners of the world at an unprecedented pace, securing and maintaining workers is not just a matter of staying competitive, it is necessary for fostering innovation, driving growth and ensuring market resilience. 

Now more than ever we must look to attract and retain a domestic workforce to meet demand. According to Office for National Statistics data, employment in the steel industry is around a tenth of the levels seen in the early 1970s. Today, the UK steel industry employs just under 30,000 people but contributes over £1.6bn to the UK economy

To tackle the resource deficit head-on, we must invest heavily in apprenticeship programmes.

Through industry-wide initiatives like the 5% Club, which many organisations and ourselves are part of, we can commit over 5 per cent of new positions to apprenticeships. We need to hold ourselves accountable to train the next generation with the latest technologies and skills available to improve efficiency and safety across our industry. This includes upskilling and training professionals on new kit.

These tools are set to revolutionise the way we process materials and reduce material movements. By using them we can upskill our pool of homegrown talent and provide the next generation with the knowledge and experience they need to meet the demands of the market.

Equally crucial to human capital is investment in the technology and machines we use. Recent announcements include the National Grid committing £15bn to £19bn to “rewire the nation”, as well as the government’s wider ambition to level up the North through the £36bn Network North initiative.

With all this in mind, an extra 224,900 workers are expected to be needed between now and 2027 to enable the construction industry to meet the demands of the UK, according to the Construction Industry Training Board.

Overhauling work practices

Through substantial investments across the construction industry, we can revolutionise the way we work.

One example is a new section drilling, milling and sawing line. It is a game-changer and brings added capabilities such as scribing and milling, reducing the need for secondary processes and material handling. This equipment not only reduces the number of processes, but cuts material movement and wastage, ensuring enhanced safety for our people, as well as widespread sustainability benefits.

Unlike other materials used across the sector, one of the inherent benefits of steel is its infinite ability to be recycled.

We can recycle steel back into the supply chain as new material and, as a responsible fabricator, we must set the standard and also be conscious that this does not come at zero cost or environmental impact.

We must ensure that, wherever possible, we leave a lasting, positive legacy in the communities in which we operate, targeting to reduce the amount of waste steel we produce through our processes.

By investing in new equipment, the latest technologies and homegrown talent, we are ensuring that we have the right people at the right time. With the right tools to meet the rising demands of the steel market and the industry, we must set the benchmark for a more sustainable future.

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