We need to build up chemical industry’s skills base

This is an exciting and challenging time for chemical sciences in Scotland as the industry aims to build up its workforce.

The chemical sciences industry is Scotlands second highest exporter after food and drink
The chemical sciences industry is Scotlands second highest exporter after food and drink

The sector punches well above its weight and with £4.5 billion of exports in 2012, is Scotland’s second highest exporter after food and drink. However, there is a skills gap that needs to be addressed.

Twenty years ago, the attraction of jobs offered by the financial services sector led to a deficit of skilled workers going into the chemicals industry and despite the sector continuing to steadily grow, so did the skills gap. This gap is beginning to be bridged through renewal of investment and interest.

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There’s been an increase in the number of technicians and students studying STEM subjects at apprenticeship, HND, degree and post-graduate levels. These are positive first steps, but there is still a lot more to be done.

In particular, encouraging an already skilled workforce to retrain in areas applicable to chemical sciences is something that needs to be more widely promoted. European countries, for example, are much better at retraining workers and investing in continued growth than in the UK, 
where unfortunately there has been a stigma attached
to personal investment in skills.

Changing perceptions about retraining is essential; for instance expanding your base skills needs to be regarded as personal progression rather than failure. This lateral movement will help to meet the short-term results needed in the sector. Another challenge is to break down the gender bias in what is still an inherently male-dominated sector particularly as female graduates represent a huge untapped potential.

The chemical sector continues to work closely with government bodies to build up and regenerate the workforce. Investment in a skilled workforce is crucial to the sector’s ambitious plans for growth, however, and this can only be facilitated by all the agencies involved working together to provide a constant stream of well-qualified, talented and motivated people.

• Gordon Grant is a former general manager at INEOS. The third biennial Chemical Sciences Scotland conference takes place at Stirling Management Centre, 28 and 29 October, www.cssconference.co.uk