There’s a common mantra in many industries about the “skills gap” and not being able to find the right skills to fill specialist vacancies. But that’s just not true. The youngsters with skills are out there – they just have an opportunity gap, which it’s up to the industry to address.

We should be wary when anyone talks about skills gaps. Perhaps it is difficult to find young people motivated to learn electronics or pursue a career in engineering, but there are youngsters who have basic skills or the capacity to learn who just need to be given the opportunity. You can’t expect a young 18-year old or 21-year old fresh out of school or university to have a ready-made package of skills for a specific job.

I say that with recent experience in mentoring a 17-year old boy at my local school over the last year, who happens to want to be an embedded systems engineer. He was hungry to learn and get more information about the industry. We talked about opportunities in apprentice programs in space and defense, where there are major local companies like Airbus, which is developing the ExoMars rover, and missile technology specialist MBDA. And when it came to the end of the year, I put him in touch with another local company, Imagination Technologies, who were only too happy to give him some experience.

SEMI skilled

At SEMI’s Industry Strategy Symposium (ISS) in Milan, Italy, last week, there were some great examples of companies not only having the capability to nurture the skills they needed, but also to address the diversity and inclusion agenda. They included SPTS Technologies (wafer processing solutions), Edwards (vacuum and pump solutions for semiconductor manufacturing), and Melexis (automotive semiconductor sensors).

But one example that clearly stood out was the TU/ecomotive student team from Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands. This was a group of 22 students who in 2018 had built and launched a unique vehicle designed to be sustainable in all of its life phases, from production to use and recycling. They call it Noah.

Noah’s structural components, such as the chassis and body, are produced from a revolutionary material featuring flax fibers and sugar. The raw resources are locally available and can be produced with less energy compared to materials regularly used in the automotive industry such as aluminum and carbon fiber. Noah has a combined weight of 420 kg (920 lb.), a top speed of 110 kph (68 mph) and drives 300 kilometers (186 miles) on the electric energy equivalent of 1 liter of petrol. It’s also designed as a street legal car, since it complies with all regulations. It took them just nine months to build it.

Not for the Money

Students work on this project in a voluntary capacity. They are supported by industry partners and sponsors, who help with everything from development to showcasing Noah around the world.

Cas Verstappen, who presented the project on behalf of TU/ecomotive to the assembled semiconductor industry audience in Milan, said, “We’re not in it for the money, it’s not part of our studies, it’s totally voluntary. We just innovate based on what our hearts want to do.”

One of the major partners for the project is NXP Semiconductors, and we sat down with the company’s vice president of innovation, Maurice Geraets, to learn more about what the company is doing to support the development of talent. He told us that the company’s support is on multiple fronts including coaching and technology expertise, and that this was part of an ongoing activity to support teams from the university.

“We coach the team of young students, and more importantly, help them with the technology. In the case of the Noah car, we helped with i.MX6 controller, the in-vehicle network and the NFC.” He emphasized that NXP doesn’t do the development for the students; it just provides technical support and know-how. He adds, “Some of the team members come and work for NXP afterwards, but typically, given the experience they’ve gained, they want to do a startup.”

TUecomotive Noah The Noah sustainable car developed by the TU/ecomotive student team from Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands, with technology from NXP. (Source: TU/ecomotive)

He said the first team that NXP supported back in 2013 had developed Stella, the first family-sized solar vehicle. Some of the students from that team eventually set up Lightyear, which has gone on to sell around 120 cars, each with a price tag of over €100,000 (about US $120,000). Just this month, Lightyear also received €2.5 million (US $2.8 million) through Europe’s Horizon 2020 research funding program, which Lightyear will use to support production of its first electric solar car, the Lightyear One, to be launched in early 2020.

Another team that spun out from the University that was supported by NXP is Blue Jay, which is developing intelligent indoor drones.

We asked Geraets about the motivation for supporting the university teams. He said, “We help students overcome the hurdles they experience at that age.” At the same time, he said they are also able to utilize NXP’s reference designs, and ultimately this promotes NXP technology as the student teams go around the world promoting their achievements. “We may provide technical support, but we also get energized by these young teams. We also sponsor teams and can provide funding.” He adds that the skills and expertise the students gain is invaluable.

The Experience Gap

The NXP example illustrates that far from a skills gap, there’s an experience gap that industry can do well to nurture.

Paul Jackson is the lead author of the report, Talent 2050: Engineering Skills and Education for the Future, and is also executive director of Jasia Education. He told EE Times, “Actually there’s a reservoir of talent out there if you’re prepared to train them.” The report, produced for the UK’s National Center for Universities and Business (NCUB), looks at what’s needed to develop future skills for industry.

The first phase of the report found that even if the education system could be changed to teach new skills on the route from school to apprenticeship or university it would still not address more fundamental issues.

Jackson said, “To drive a more diverse workforce and avoid skills shortages, engineering needs to reach beyond existing STEM (science, engineering, technology and maths) employees. It must consider a more inclusive approach where recruitment is based on the potential to gain the right skills, avoiding the rejection of talented people who haven’t already obtained them.”

This is the core message: the potential to gain the right skills. When industry says there’s a skills gap, it’s clear that skills are out there, but they may just not be the perfect match for the role in hand. But a bright youngster with willingness to learn can be nurtured. And that means industry needs to invest in obtaining the skills, not just expecting everything on a plate. Just give the newly educated students a chance and they will shine.