The UK is suffering from a ‘serious shortage’ of qualified electronic engineers and its education system is ill-equipped to rectify the situation, according to one expert.
On the fringes of the Weald in Matfield, Raster Vision Ltd (RVL) is one of the most hi-tech firms in the borough.
Founded in 1992, the company specialises in supplying niche electronic equipment to firms across the globe, such as French tyre company Michelin, for which it produces thousands of systems a year.
These systems monitor pressure and overheating in some of the largest tyres produced by Michelin, 12ft in diameter and used on specialist mining vehicles.
But despite ‘booming’ business, operations director Peter Smith is worried his company may ultimately lose out on future trade unless more skilled employees can be found.
He said: “There is a serious shortage of skilled electronic engineers in the country and in the past we have had to look outside the UK to get the staff we wanted.”
Mr Smith said that although he is happy to employ staff from abroad, citing the example of a South African employee at the company, it can add extra strain on the firm and the employee.
He added: “It takes a lot of commitment from both parties and especially from the staff member who has to uproot and move to the UK.
“But it strikes me as a shame there are not more qualified local people who can be hired.”
Part of the problem, Mr Smith believes, is even those who qualify in fields related to electronic engineering often end up working in accounting or banking, where they can make more money.
But the education system itself fails to equip most students with the right skills, he said, adding: “Universities are teaching them about things which are already ten years out of date. They fail to keep up with technology, which is changing daily.”
He also lamented the decline of electronics at GCSE, with only a handful of schools still offering the course.
And it is not just RVL in this situation, he said, adding: “Many of our competitors are struggling to obtain talent.
“The skills shortage is a big threat to the company and it means we will have to start turning away business.”
Apart from the ongoing skills shortage, Mr Smith has concerns over the coming referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union.
He said: “One of the reasons why it is convenient to be based in the southeast is our proximity to our continental clients such as Michelin.
“I am worried about withdrawal from the EU as the impact on our business would be massive. I do not think we would be able to maintain Michelin as a customer.
Mr Smith believes withdrawal from the EU would undo much of the ‘good work’ this government has achieved.
He said: “The last few years have been difficult but we are getting more enquiries from customers and people seem prepared to invest more money in new products and ideas.
“The government’s economic plan seems to be working and it is not that I think the EU is a perfect system but from a business perspective, it is better for us to stay in.”
In an attempt to help rectify the situation, RVL is holding a careers open evening on December 2
in conjunction with ARX Recruitment Services of Goudhurst.
Electronics and engineering students will be able to visit a company where innovative electronics are designed and put into production and get to know how a real electronics firm operates.
Individuals can register by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or calling 01892 722228.
Who is Peter Smith and what is RVL?
When Peter Smith first joined the company as a storeroom worker in 1989 when it was named JCL Business Systems and had been founded a few years earlier by Richard and Jacqueline Leman to produce ‘add-ons’ for Commodore computers.
The company changed its name to Raster Vision Ltd in 1992 and has since concentrated on developing specialist electronic equipment for its clients, which range from large manufacturers to defence and the scientiﬁ c community.
Mr Smith Said: “There are no ‘bread and butter’ products for us, we will produce niche electronic products for anybody who requires tailor-made systems.”
Mr Smith himself has known no other career since he joined the company after turning down an offer to study theoretical physics at university.
He has since climbed to the position of operational director and owns a large stake in the company, alongside Mark Leman, the son of the two original founders who have since retired. In this time, he has seen many changes at the firm, which has grown from four people to about 20 staff.
Mr Smith said: “About 20 years ago, the company bought its first hi-tech machine to make electronic components and at the time it cost considerably more than my house. But it was antiquated within ﬁ ve years and we have bought more machines and replaced many since then.
“An important part of our budget is ensuring we have enough to invest in the future. At the moment we have the capacity to make 6,000 component parts an hour.”
TEK Military Seating
ONE Tunbridge Wells manufacturer which produces vehicle seats for the military said it is not currently feeling the effects of any skills shortage in its field.
TEK Military Seating has its headquarters in Tunbridge Wells but its main manufacturing hub is a recently opened facility near Leicester.
A spokesman for the company said: “We are actually okay for staff at the moment, but we do not manufacture anything quite as complex as circuit boards or electronic components.
“Our more specialist areas are in the ﬁ elds of vehicle trimming and seat trimming and Leicester seems to be a good part of the world to ﬁ nd those sorts of skills.”
What other products are designed by RVL?
VOGON: “A multi-purpose video overlay generator suitable for use in many applications, ranging from video inspection systems to surveillance systems.”
It is designed entirely in-house, and is built in RVL’s manufacturing department.
FeederMaster: “A calibration and test jig for pick and place machine feeders. This is an ongoing project that we work on for AdoptSMT, and makes use of a customised version of our video overlay hardware.”
The DMX-TRI: “An RDM lighting controller from JESE, for which we provided the surface-mount PCB assembly.”