Can Minecraft Solve the Shortage of UK Engineers

  • June 23, 2015
  • Northern Industrial
  • News

With the shortage of engineering skills said to cost the UK £27bn per year, it is clear that there is a problem getting kids interested in all aspects of engineering. One area in particular is the field of industrial automation which is rapidly developing both here in the UK and worldwide. Take robotics for example, in 2014 there was a 27% increase in the worldwide supply of robots but with automation processes being adopted at a faster rate than we are training our young people and existing workers, many UK businesses are finding the lack of engineers a major barrier to growth.

One such company is Northern Industrial, a worldwide supplier of new & refurbished automation parts and electronic repairs who have won a number of awards for export. “Even though we have grown by over 400% in the past five years we have found the lack of young engineering talent to be a major problem and one that has restricted our expansion plans” explains David Lenehan, Northern Industrial’s Managing Director. “We really struggle to keep up with the demand for our service and have established our own apprenticeship program. Unfortunately, many of the applicants have no real interest or knowledge of automation or engineering. It is sad as we could hire another 10 engineers tomorrow.”

But before we can even begin to tackle the skills shortage and recruit more engineers into UK industry, we need to understand the causes of the shortage.

Why is there a skills shortage?

One such problem that can be attributed to the skills shortage is the lack of focus on apprenticeships in recent years. Apprenticeships have historically been a traditional route into engineering. As discussed in an article by The Guardian, for many people “apprenticeships conjure images of Britain's industrial past and a time when employers took a young person, probably a young man, under their wing and taught them the tricks of a trade.”

Despite being a traditional method to train up our young people here in the UK, both apprenticeships and studentships fell out of favour during the early 1980s and have never quite recovered. The Coalition government began to put apprenticeships back on the agenda in the last parliament but we still have a long way to go to close the engineering skills gap further and keep up with other countries. They have also been accused of using the term apprenticeships to reduce unemployment figures with low paid jobs which, if true, makes it unlikely that the recent surge in apprenticeships will eventually close the skills gap.

Even though we look back on apprenticeships as being a pathway into the industrial sector, many of the apprenticeships being offered to our young people today are in low level jobs with little opportunity for progression. In 2013/2014, the top three sectors for apprenticeships included business administration, retail and the public service and care sector which made up for 73% of all apprenticeships - a clear indicator that the current situation isn’t going to solve the skills shortage any time soon.

Other routes into automation

Apprenticeships aren’t the only route into manufacturing and automation, but like apprenticeship figures in the last decade, they too are limited. A quick search on UCAS throws up only a handful of higher education courses in the UK for 2016 with a focus on automation and control systems.

What does this mean for automation in the UK?

With automation described as the future of manufacturing, not just in the UK but worldwide, a lack of automation training could be a major hindrance in an increasingly competitive global market. Although some people argue that automating manufacturing processes results in fewer jobs for people, it is also a fact that it opens up jobs for a more skilled labour force. Without the means to fill these newly created jobs, are we limiting ourselves on the global stage? It’s nationally recognised that we are no longer as successful in international football because our infrastructure is lacking at a grass roots level, without increasing interest and opportunities for our young people early on in their career development we risk the same situation in manufacturing, without the glory of one world cup!

The solution

Before we can even begin to train people in automation and controls though, there needs to be interest generated. Automation is all around us, it is used to help make our food, transport us around shopping malls, build our cars and make our clothes, yet isn’t necessarily in most people’s consciousness, particularly young children.

An unexpected starting point

A quick search on Youtube will result in hundreds of children designing and building their own automated machinery, from automated farming machinery and a self mining machine to hard drives and our personal favourite the sheep firing gun.

In both intended and unintended contexts and uses, Minecraft enables kids to exercise their creativity and learn the fundamentals of industrial automation by building both simple and sophisticated systems. This is nothing new, kids have always loved building things and solving problems, but before Minecraft, the best tools we could offer them was Lego, which is limited more by the parent’s budget than the child's imagination. In Minecraft kids can build whatever is in their imagination, without parents needing to buy another set of expensive plastic bricks, and at the same time develop spatial reasoning.

One of the key building materials in Minecraft is redstone, which is the closest thing to industrial automation. Redstone components, such as levers, pressure plates and pistons, are just like mechanical real-world devices. To make them work, you lay redstone dust down in the game like real-world electrical wiring and is similar to digital electronics (based on Boolean algebra) in real life. Redstone enables the Minecrafter to build machinery using standard logic gate function which is one of the key foundations of industrial automation and engineering.

Another important aspect of Minecraft which is often overlooked is social building. In the real world, it is rare to find machine designers or engineers working in isolation. As John C. Maxwell once said “Teamwork Makes The Dream Work”. Whereas the young weekend electronics enthusiasts might work alone to finish off an electronics project for school, Minecrafters are working in cross-country or sometimes multi-country teams to build energy production systems, massive water projects or underground house-making factories in the game. In many ways this is preparing kids for real-world engineering projects where working in a team is crucial.

So will Minecraft persuade a generation of kids to stop pursuing the dreams of being a popstar and become engineers? Probably not, but with over 100 million registered players is it too much to hope that a few of these take up engineering? Perhaps large equipment manufacturers, such as Siemens and Danfoss, could look at Minecraft as a way to engage with the next generation of engineers and help UK manufacturing.

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