Managing director warns of worrying skills shortage

Stephen Shortland of New Vision Packaging
Stephen Shortland of New Vision Packaging

A packaging specialist has warned there is a worrying skills shortage when it comes to new talent entering the industry.

Stephen Shortland, managing director of Kettering-based packaging design and sourcing company, New Vision Packaging, is concerned that the design courses offered by many universities are actually watering down talent.

“We’re often approached by graduates looking to get a foot in the door,” commented Stephen. “Many students are well versed in the theory of the design process but this often lacks an all important grounding in reality, and overall commercial awareness is shockingly poor. I’m all for supporting the next generation of packaging designers, but I’m concerned that many young people are spending a lot of money on university courses that aren’t preparing them for the real world.

“Part of the problem appears to be that many courses no longer offer a year in industry and, where it is offered, students often opt out because of cost. Those 12 months in a real working environment are vital to bring the theory and practice together and it’s worryingly evident from the portfolios that I’m seeing that this isn’t happening.”

Stephen believes that part of the problem rests with the portrayal of the business world on television. “Take shows such as The Apprentice and Dragons’ Den,” said Stephen. “These types of programme tend to create quite a warped view of the business world. The viewer’s left with a sense that things are almost handed to you on a plate and they do little to show the grit and determination that’s actually needed to succeed in what is a very tough trading environment.

“If the situation doesn’t improve soon, I believe it could have a real impact on the economy in years to come. A lot of design work is already outsourced to other countries due to cost and we could soon be seeing the same due to a skills shortage. More effort needs to be made for the next generation of UK designers to regain their edge.”

Stephen visits colleges to speak to students about the realities of the business world and believes more company owners should be doing the same.

He said: “There certainly needs to be more of a connection between business and education and inward investment to support partnerships to nurture new talent. It’s a winning situation for all involved really, as the universities and colleges are seen to offer their students more and, at the end of it, businesses benefit from being able to employ graduates with real commercial sense.”

Samuel Mitchell, research manager at Creative & Cultural Skills, agreed. He said: “Research by the Design Commission indicates that a large proportion of design employers feel that there is little to differentiate design graduates. In particular they felt that a lack of business skills, commercial acumen and industry awareness were consistent themes that were not being taught properly to undergraduate design students.

“A Creative and Cultural Skills Workforce Survey, carried out in 2009, showed that 19 per cent of design businesses had faced difficulty recruiting new staff. Applicants particularly lacked experience, often related to business or commercial skills in design, along with a general lack of specialist skills.”

New Vision Packaging’s client portfolio features some of the UK’s biggest brands and retailers, including Thorntons, Waitrose, Cadbury World and celebrity hairdresser Lee Stafford.