Sustainability of Talent in the Coatings Industry

Sustainability of Talent in the Coatings Industry

A keynote speech given at the PRA Open Day, June 2017

Andrew Milton-Thompson, Managing Director, In2Search Ltd and

Secretary, Royal Society of Chemistry Surface Coatings Group *


The People Challenge in Coatings

One of the biggest challenges faced by the coatings industry in the UK and elsewhere is the gradual disappearance of core skills and experience, especially the technical skills in formulation and innovation.

Over recent decades the coatings industry has experienced huge structural change. The major multinationals have grown by acquiring smaller companies, subsequently consolidating R&D capabilities on a global basis. Remaining smaller companies have survived by concentrating on specialist niches.

Indeed paint companies of all sizes have focused their strategies on specific application segments, so their R&D organisations also sought excellence in ever narrower fields.

As a result, most companies are now unable to provide the broad learning environment that in the past resulted in the rounded, complete formulation chemist able to operate across the wide range of technologies and applications that make up the coatings industry. The benefit of this broad experience was thought to be the formulation chemist’s ability to bring knowledge of one area to bear in solving problems in another.

Cost pressures have resulted in companies halting the recruitment of young people, sometimes for periods of many years, particularly those with science backgrounds who seek salary levels that reflect the investments they have made in their education. Often when companies do invest, they tend to prioritise customer-facing activities, sometimes attracting technologists into better paid positions outside R&D, and potentially starving the technical resource upon which the company’s long term future depends.

As a result there are significant generational and experience gaps inside many R&D organisations. Companies try to hold on to their older people on whose knowledge and experience they have come to rely, and they are missing the following generations ready for the transfer of knowledge and responsibility.

In some cases, companies have found themselves without essential expertise to support problem solving and updating of core products when customer needs, regulation or competitive developments force change.

To make matters worse, the disappearance of much vocational technical training means companies find they cannot recruit people with the basic skills needed for the QC, sample preparation and testing, and analytical activities that form much of the daily work of the coatings lab.

There has also been a feeling in the industry that “graduates arrive without the required technical skills and leave after two years”. This has discouraged companies from hiring the best science graduates. But the industry needs some high achievers able to drive innovation and take leadership positions in the future. Experience shows that leaders most often emerge from among those with high academic achievement in early life.

In 2014 CEPE 1 estimated that across Europe the recruiting demand from formulating companies, raw material suppliers and major users amounts to about 220 formulation chemists each year. The recognised paint schools across Europe are only graduating around 100 chemists. And furthermore the coatings sector is competing for these graduates with other formulating sectors such as cosmetics.

We face the challenge that among the young, whether school leavers, university graduates, or high level academics, there is little awareness of coatings. Other sectors such as health and pharmaceuticals, the environment, energy, agriculture, teaching and research tend to be front of mind for those interested in chemistry.


The New Way for People

To attract the talent we need, it is important to understand the young of today, their learning behaviours, their career interests and expectations, and to adapt our recruitment aims and practises – indeed our organisations – accordingly.

The young are not so interested in learning about the way things are done today, or were done in the past. That knowledge is for them just the place to start, and if someone else has that knowledge already they will just ask for help rather than spend time and energy learning it for themselves. They expect information to be openly available, and are prepared to search in all sorts of different places, including outside their immediate place of work.

They look to gain experience across education, through working on temporary projects as well as in permanent jobs, in different sectors and with different employers. They do not expect to gain all the experience they want or need from one place.

Young people are open to making connections across organisation and geographical boundaries, and across generations. They are not attracted by inward looking organisations.

They also know that they need to own their own careers, and not expect their organisations to provide a smooth and continuous career path, or even a single job for life. It does not make sense for either employers or employees to pretend that there is a career long commitment from either side. But this does not mean that young employees are not fully committed to their work and to their employer, valuing a consistent and secure environment, and it should not make employers afraid of the investing confidently in young people.

The all-important question is what motivates young people. Young chemists become naturally aware of the impact of both good and bad chemistry on our planet and our way of life. So they are readily motivated by opportunities to help solve problems in their field.

And of course the money. Hard won chemistry skills are poorly valued by comparison with the other sciences, engineering and mathematics. This is probably a cause of many chemistry graduates leaving the profession. Inside our industry it is well known that if you want to earn more, you should move from technology into sales, or from formulation into raw materials. So it is important to pay capable scientists and technologists well.

But it is not just the money. Young people appreciate a working environment that reflects their values and their interest in achieving a good work life balance. Nothing needs to be invented, companies just need to look at other sectors where young people flock and see what they are doing.


The New Way for Companies

What should companies do to become attractive to young people?

It is now common in industry for development projects to be carried out by groups of organisations: universities, research organisations, small spin-outs, suppliers, customers, competitors, government organisations. Each may bring its own particular resources and expertise.

Young scientists coming to work in this way may already have experienced the resistance to sharing and connecting that still exists in the academic world, but have seen how much more can be achieved by being open. And they may already have developed an understanding of the issues of ownership of knowledge. So they will recognise companies that work this way as forward looking.

It is important to communicate what the company intends to do. Strategy is about the future not the past – not where we have come from, but where we are going. Strategy expressed in terms of problems to be solved, and realistic plans for change, will be better received than numerical goals and generalised aspirations.

Think about what appeals to young people, and prioritise these things in your HR policies. Take a look at what technology companies in other fields are doing to attract their talent, and copy what you think will work in your setting.

Don’t be afraid to recruit good people because they might leave. There is a lot to learn from them. If they leave, they make space for more new ideas.

All this openness can make knowledge based businesses concerned about losing a grip on their intellectual property.

But intellectual property rests less today in detailed formulations, and more in know-how, application knowledge, customer relationships, and the ability to solve problems. None of this is static, and a strong organisation is one which can learn from the outside and evolve new ways of doing things.


What is already out there?

Across Europe there are long established courses in paint formulation at several well known paint schools. Their graduates are to be found already today working at all levels and functions in the coatings industry.

One of these recognised schools in the UK is the Department of Colour Science at Leeds University which offers undergraduate modules and a masters level programme. Elsewhere across the UK the University of Greenwich has designed its chemistry programmes in consultation with industry to ensure graduates gain the working skills industry needs. Warwick University has developed a centre of excellence in polymer science which features in courses at both undergraduate and MSc level, in addition to hosting no less than eight polymer research groups.

In many other universities across the country there are research activities in different areas related to surface coatings, some of them spawning spin-out companies. At Manchester University for example there is a £7m Corrosion and Protection Centre hosted by the School of Materials. This highlights the many possibilities our industry has for collaboration, and for the acquisition of talent.

Further afield, the work undertaken by CEPE1 together with several major coatings companies has resulted in the creation of an English language, European Masters Programme in Formulation and Management at the ITECH engineering school in Lyon 2. The industry is offering scholarships and work experience opportunities for this programme. One of these scholarships is offered by the British Coatings Federation (BCF).

The BCF itself has created the Coatings Training Institute3 which provides distance learning courses designed for those already at work in the industry.

Many of the more vocationally oriented universities across the UK have responded to their own competitive environment by designing courses aiming to provide students with specific skills requested by industry, in an environment combining study with relevant work experience. With increasing interest from government in apprenticeship and other initiatives to address the skills gap, we can expect this to be a worthwhile avenue for companies to explore on a local basis.


What is still to be done?

The key to making all this work is getting the message across to young chemists. They need to feel that investing their energy in gaining skills and knowledge of value to our industry will give them real career possibilities in an industry that wants them. They need a sense that this is not about narrowing their future possibilities down to a restricted application field, but opening possibilities in a sector that impacts society and involves an ever increasing range of technologies.

The BCF has already developed promotional material

We need to encourage young people already in coatings companies to reach out – for co-operation in working, for sharing in projects, and just to talk about what is going on in their companies and in the industry.

The Royal Society of Chemistry Surface Coatings Group is starting to identify young people from the industry who can help deliver the message, by showing some typical career paths, and by talking about their work experience. The group intends to reach out to selected university and college communities. Through the group’s network it is already encouraging members of the academic community to participate in industry events and to connect with members from the industry.

There is now a range of possible approaches for coating companies who want to address their own talent issues, and a supporting network of organisations keen to help.


About the Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC)

The Royal Society of Chemistry is the world’s leading chemistry community, advancing excellence in the chemical sciences. With over 54,000 members and a knowledge business that spans the globe, we are the UK’s professional body for chemical scientists; a not-for-profit organisation with 175 years of history and an international vision for the future. We promote, support and celebrate chemistry. We work to shape the future of the chemical sciences – for the benefit of science and humanity.

The Royal Society of Chemistry Surface Coatings Group was formed in 2016 to create a network for members at any stage in their career with an interest in chemistry and natural sciences applied to surface coatings.

Andrew Milton-Thompson is Managing Director of In2Search Ltd5 and Secretary of the Surface Coatings Group6

* Any views or opinions expressed are entirely those of the author, and do not represent any official viewpoint of either the PRA or the Royal Society of Chemistry