Cracking an ageing issue
It was Paul Sheerin’s debut speech to his organisation’s annual dinner and there were a few jokes at the expense of his predecessor.
They were, of course, disguised compliments aimed at Bryan Buchan’s stint as Scottish Engineering’s chief executive.
Even so, this blokey leg-pulling may have been a gentle reminder to some in the audience that this is still a sector dominated by men, confirmed by a series of awards, of which none was presented to a female.
“Yes, it’s something we have to tackle,” says the organisation’s new leader, acknowledging the chronic shortage of women in the industry. Despite the extensive education programmes and government schemes, girls are still less likely to develop a career in engineering and only 12% of senior positions are held by women.
That said, Sheerin is taking a broad approach to the future needs of the sector which goes beyond the gender issue.
“What keeps me awake at night? It’s the ageing workforce and the lack of skills available – at all ages.
“The most common conversation I have with member companies is about skills. We have a huge need to grow the numbers. There are lots of schemes but not enough people coming in.”
Among his targets is the apprenticeship levy, which is being applied differently north and south of the border.
“It was well-intentioned but it has not been appreciated. In England companies draw from a pot, but here the payments go to Skills Development Scotland and there is a lack of transparency about how it is being spent. We are working with various bodies to get more clarity.”
Brexit is the other big drain on skills. “Anecdotally, there seems to be a drift of people. Companies are saying they have lost employees who are heading for home and it is difficult to replace them.”
With these among the chief concerns piling up in his in-tray, it comes as a surprise to hear him announce to his dinner guests that he is a “hopeless and persistent optimist”. He is also a firm believer in the circular society, making better use of resources.
“I do think it is important and I want to see engineering play a part in it,” he says.
‘I’ve heard the jokes about making sunglasses in Scotland’
Sheerin stepped up to the Glasgow-based role at the end of March. He had spent a number of years working in the nuclear industry in England and the US. On returning to the UK he was taken on by Polaroid in West Dunbartonshire where he rose to managing director in charge of 700 workers making lenses for sunglasses.
“Yes, I’ve heard the jokes about making sunglasses in Scotland,” he says. In fact the plant churned out 5m pairs a year and designed frames. When it was acquired by an Italian company, manufacturing was switched to China with a heavy loss of jobs. Sheerin took a position at Diamond Power where he was settled until the Scottish Engineering job came up.
He had been on the organisation’s executive committee for 10 years so was familiar with its inner workings and the challenges facing the sector. Together with his experience in senior positions it made him a natural choice for the top job.
He sees Scottish Engineering’s role as doing, among other things, the “heavy lifting” for its members, shaping its approach to education and developing the intake of STEM students.
“It is encouraging that there is a greater focus on manufacturing and engineering in schools, but there is work to be done to rebuild the industry,” he says.
In the past 40 years manufacturing’s share of Scottish GDP has fallen from 16% to 11% and he wants to see that halted and reversed. He shares the view of Stuart Patrick, CEO of Glasgow Chamber of Commerce, that a city like Glasgow needs to rekindle its relationship with “making things”.
He says: “It is a message I share but we have to make sure that words and intentions are turned into action. There are some good things are happening, such as the National Manufacturing Institute, but we need to do more.”
By that he means changing the culture, appreciating the range of industries that embrace some form of “engineering” and exciting youngsters about it. He was impressed by Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson’s address to the dinner in which she said the industry needed to be bold and confident and “talk it up”.
In his inaugural speech he noted that of more than 30 companies that he has so far visited “not one” had failed to mention its commitment to improving efficiency.
“None said they don’t do continuous improvement,” he said. “I like that. It shows there is a dedication to being the best.”
Job: CEO Scottish Engineering
Education: Glasgow University (Electrical and Electronic Engineering)
Career highlights: member of team working on Sizewell B reactor technology in Cheshire and Suffolk; seconded to Westinghouse in Pittsburgh; moved to Michigan; took a year off to travel with his wife; returned to Glasgow and joined Polaroid, working up to MD; spent a year at Diamond Power.
What gets under your skin?
People who lack care in what they do. Organisations doing a lot of talking with no action
Glass half full or half empty?
Casual or formal for work?
My first boss criticised me for not wearing a jacket, so I’m on the formal side.
What lessons did you learn from working in the US?
An absolute and unfailing belief in being part of the EU. I saw many small, even mediocre companies in the US benefiting from the size of their market. It breaks my heart that we are leaving the EU. We have to hope for the best and plan for the worst.
Favourite haunt or place?
I like to head for the hills and go cycling.
If you could arrange to meet three people, past or present, who would you choose?
Kate Bush, the singer and songwriter. I have been a fan all my life
John smith, the late leader of the Labour Party. He seemed to be a decent man with some honest values.
Any of the men who made the first moon landing. I’d just like to hear what they thought about the experience of being part of such a moment in history.