Future skills for the foundation industries

Female apprentice engineer working with CNC machine in factory

This blog provides an insight into the skills availability in the foundation industries sector and the action plan of the challenge to help resolve it.

The foundation industries produce materials that make up everything around us:

  • metals
  • glass
  • paper
  • cements
  • ceramics
  • chemicals.

They are vital to the UK manufacturing supply chain and contribute £45 billion to the UK economy.

UK Research and Innovation’s (UKRI) Transforming Foundation Industries (TFI) challenge aims to revolutionise the foundation industries. That is, enabling the sustainable future survival of these industries within the UK through energy and resource efficiency improvements using the latest technology.

Measures are already in place to accelerate these technological developments. However, lasting changes needed to secure the future of foundation industries will only be achieved by securing a future talent pipeline and developing a highly skilled workforce.

Key challenges

From recent research we have identified widespread concern about skills availability and the provision of education and training across disciplines required by the foundation industries:

  • 40% of businesses identified skills and recruitment as a barrier to growth
  • data science, artificial intelligence and interdisciplinary subjects were highlighted as being vital for the future, but with no current provisions
  • management and leadership skills were also highlighted as barriers to innovation, widely seen as being key to achieving net zero
  • all businesses stressed the challenges in recruiting for graduate level and technical skills.

This is only expected to intensify in the coming years as technologies and business models continue to evolve. During that time, there is acknowledged risk that vital key skills and capabilities could be lost from the industry as employees retire.

The TFI challenge team recognises the huge importance of skills in driving and enabling innovation. We commissioned a study to build upon existing research with the following aims:

  • identify current and future skills needs by sub-sector and across all sectors
  • identify commonalities and differences across the sectors
  • highlight diversity and inclusion challenges, including current representation in the industries
  • identify how, and by which organisations, skills are supplied to the sub-sectors
  • identify potential gaps in meeting future skills needed to deliver improved competitiveness and net zero.

Read the full report from this study, completed by SQW. This article discusses key findings and the challenge’s action plan to support the industries.

Key findings from the study

The study identified skills gaps around:

  • delivery of net zero transformations
  • a lack of contingency planning for those retiring or knowledge transfer plan meaning sector-specific technical knowledge is lacking
  • underdeveloped management and leadership skills forming a barrier to innovation
  • engineering skills, at professional and technician levels
  • underdeveloped problem solving, innovation and communication skills
  • digitalisation and automation needs.

Other issues anticipated in meeting the skills needs included:

  • sector image preventing interest from younger generations, especially female applicants due to perceptions of male dominated industries with hostile working environments
  • a lack of job readiness in graduates
  • a lack of quality graduates and professional applicants
  • a lack of bespoke, sector specific training in further and higher education
  • confusion around the apprenticeship system
  • a lack of churn and competition for leadership positions due to a lack of diverse pipeline
  • a lack of purchasing power from small businesses
  • limited consideration of EDI in business or recruitment policies
  • a lack of time and resources to dedicate to future planning.

TFI challenge action plan

Aligned to recommendations from the report, and those from previous research, the TFI challenge has created its Future Skills strategy, with three focus areas:

  • build a talent pipeline #AttractTalent
  • upskill the current workforce #RetainTalent
  • facilitate a coherent vision #FILeadership.

These encompass the recommendations from the report:

  • raise awareness of net zero and demand for skills within foundation industries
  • develop management and leadership capabilities
  • improve skills provision
  • improve sector attractiveness.

What follows is a breakdown of each pillar of the strategy, and how they cover each of the policy recommendations.


It is clear from working with the businesses in the foundation industries that there is both a need and a want to grow the talent pipeline. But with many small businesses making up the sectors, there must be a central point of access for talent to access signposting. Content should include:

  • opportunities for school leavers
  • apprenticeships
  • placements, internships, and graduate opportunities
  • secondments
  • career pathways with biographies of role models
  • inspiration for returners or those looking for a career change.

The research was clear that a compelling, cross-sector narrative that embraces new technology and welcomes net zero targets would reframe the importance of these industries and the nature of the roles within them.

Positive messages

There are plenty of positive messages coming from the community, but they need to be centralised to ensure that foundation industries are seen as a clear career choice. This central location will contain the positive future narrative, centred around:

  • net zero
  • digitalisation
  • the vibrant future for the industries.

To further expand the talent pool for the industries, we will work with our businesses to facilitate opportunities for training and provide toolkits for HR teams to:

  • ensure the confidence to make recruitment processes and people strategies inclusive
  • promote diversity through positive action.

We will also help leadership teams to introduce formal policies to increase diversity as part of their business case. We will do this by capturing and sharing industry-specific case studies which highlight best practice and draw on the experience of businesses with a similar workforce profile.

Finally, we will:

  • work with leading organisations, such as the Gatsby Foundation, to complete detailed fore sighting of current technical skills deficits in graduates and apprentices
  • facilitate discussions between industry and early skills training providers, such as colleges and universities, to ensure that discussions can begin with regards to curriculum and skills requirements.


Alongside building the incoming talent pipeline, it is also vital for the industries that talent is retained within the workforce, and employees are challenged and supported in their development to prevent them from leaving the industries.

The TFI challenge team will use the central access platform to provide:

  • resources and signposting for training opportunities
  • later stage career pathways and bios
  • the business case for skills investment in staff
  • disseminated roadmaps of future technologies and a translation of skills requirements
  • opportunities for mentoring and reverse mentoring programmes across sector boundaries
  • opportunities for secondments to learn new ways of working, see new technologies and bring relevant knowledge back to the business for innovation diffusion from other sectors.

We will work with existing management and leadership training providers to ensure the curriculum meets the specialised needs of the foundation industries, with strong focus on innovation and sustainability-based skills.

We will also work with businesses to see the value in upskilling their leaders, and increase the uptake of management training courses (such as through degree apprenticeships). This will prove vital in providing dedicated training using existing levies.

We are already taking positive action to support the increase of female workforce progressing into leadership positions. We will support 40 women over the next year with leadership tools training, confidence building, to overcome barriers and progress in their careers, providing a network of future female leaders for peer-support.

Facilitate a coherent vision #FILeadership

UKRI has a strong role to play in facilitating discussions, convening the right groups of experts, and supporting interventions where there is a market failure. However, the future of the foundation industries can only be secured with ownership of the challenges, and the solutions, from the industries themselves.

Currently, as the concept of ‘foundation industries’ is still in its infancy, and the industries are not used to working together, they do not have a strong profile or voice.

As Neil Witten eloquently summarised in his blog, only by unifying a sector with one common voice do they have clarity, gain credibility and get heard.

We will work to bring together a group of passionate industry leaders to articulate the employer voice in driving the need for change. This group needs to:

  • identify and engage with their sectors
  • fully understand and articulate current and future needs
  • facilitate a coherent vision for the foundation industries
  • provide leadership to develop, own and deliver the Action Plan going forwards.

The group will:

  • help build the narrative around sector attractiveness
  • support detailed foresighting activities to build their business case
  • engage with skills and training providers to allow influence over both provisions and capacity.

Engage with us

We are challenging ourselves to be reflective, adaptive and to lead the foundation industries. We will continually adapt our strategy to best support the industries and always welcome feedback and discussions on how we can best do this.

Our end goal is to ensure the sustainable future of the foundation industries. This can only be achieved if we attract and retain the best talent, and ensure training is in place to equip the sectors to remain adaptive and at the forefront of their fields.

To achieve this goal, we need your help! We are looking for businesses within the foundation industries who have an interest in transforming their skills and talent pipeline, and increasing their business diversity, to engage with us.

We have training and consultancy on offer to those who wish to become sector ambassadors and lead transformations. We are also looking for passionate individuals to be part of our leadership team, especially those who work closely with skills and talent from within the foundation industries.

Please do get in touch for more details.

Email: sarah.connolly@innovateuk.ukri.org

Top image:  Credit: serts / Getty Images

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