A strong STEM education is increasingly seen as the key element as the region builds its skills base. BUSINESSiQ editor Mike Hughes met one of its most passionate supporters – Jonathan Wood, vice president and chief technical officer for Cummins


A person working at Jonathan Wood’s level – as the global CTO for Cummins – is looking into the future every day. His approach to technology demands perfection from the group’s 70,000 workers. That’s how it earned its reputation as not only a pioneer of engineering, but a world leader that others seek out for standards they can strive to match.

In these challenging times, every business has to predict, react and redirect as market demands are driven by what the plant needs for its future.

This business’s leaders are highly skilled at not only their own roles and managing their teams so they are with them every step of the way, but also at building and structuring for the future. So for Jonathan, the sight of his workforce “engine” ticking over perfectly is matched by the excitement of seeing young people developing an interest in engineering that could lead to them being key parts of the Cummins engine.

A big factor linking them with their future careers is a STEM-based education. The perfect alignment of subjects is crystal-clear and deserves to be mentioned early on in any conversation about skills and career opportunities.

The Northern Echo: Jonathan WoodJonathan Wood (Image: Press release)

The company is at the centre of that STEM drive and recently becoming the headline sponsor of STEMFest in Newcastle. Co-ordinated by the North East STEM Hub and delivered by RTC North, the festival enabled nearly 3,000 school children to meet and engage with more than 50 businesses.

“I thought the attendance was fantastic,” Jonathan told BUSINESSiQ.

“It was my first time at STEMfest attending in person and I was just amazed, really impressed with how all the companies had set out to create something interesting and engaging for the children.

“And they looked really, really motivated with lots of things to work with and plenty of energy. It was great to see such a broad range of companies represented there and being visible and able to engage with people.”

Jonathan knows that the trick to events like that is to use them as a springboard, keeping that level of engagement and translating it to a career aspiration.

“That is something that we are really working hard on,” says Jonathan.

“We love STEMFest, but we know it is going to take more than one event. The big picture will take a continuum of activity, engaging both kids and parents in one conversation. One of the things we’ve learned through this journey we’ve been on is that you have to engage early so that young people can start to make the right choices in some of the things they choose in education.

“We can also change the hearts and minds of parents about what a career looks like in engineering because some of these long-held perceptions about what having a technical career means are not always correct.

“Events like STEMFest are important because they highlight the value of technology and opportunities in tech and growth, but it is only one part of an ongoing message of awareness and engagement that will enable us to bring enough talent through.”

The Northern Echo: A Cummins engine made from Lego at STEMfestA Cummins engine made from Lego at STEMfest (Image: Press release)

The pioneering talent on show in the North-East has a special place in his heart and is setting new benchmarks every day.

“I have to give credit to the North East,” he says. “I have seen remarkable work going on there to promote the industry, to promote investment and highlight the value that it all brings to the region’s regeneration, with high-paid, high-quality, really skilled jobs.

“There’s some fantastic work going on that needs to be replicated in other areas.”

That regional powerhouse is one reason why the engineering sector is transforming constantly – with giants like Cummins seeing further ahead, rerouting, recommissioning and re-energising the ideas within it.

As Jonathan says, people ‘still have to hold spanners’ and construct, service and repair equipment all over the world to make sure things are running for customers, but there are also skills needed every day such as cybersecurity for new products being launched. That’s still STEM, but quite a different skillset.

“There is a whole spectrum of possibilities in there,” says Jonathan.

“I think the message I try to take everywhere I go is that we need people in all of those skills associated with STEM so trying to get everybody thinking about what engineering means and what science and technology means for our futures is vital.

“There is a career for many people in so many different aspects of what we do here and what engineering businesses around the world are focussing on.”

The Northern Echo: Jonathan and the STEMfest teamJonathan and the STEMfest team (Image: Press release)

If that level of determination and drive, coupled with the long-term engagement coming out of STEMFest are to make a big difference, they have to reach all corners of their potential audience – with no barriers.

So the perception of engineering being a male-dominated career has to be understood and removed once and for all.

As Jonathan says: “The industry struggles with sufficient gender representation, particularly engineering, but in science and technology generally, but we are starting to shift that. I know when I was at STEMFest, it was so good to see much higher gender representation at that early age which was getting both boys and girls engaged with what was in front of them.

“There was really fun, challenging and technical work and problem-solving which can excite both boys and girls and let them know this is actually a really good career with space for everybody to find their role. I think it’s really important from parents and young people to see the breadth of what STEM really means and break down these preconceptions.

“In my role, I need to have three views of this – the North East, the UK and a global outlook.

“If you project forward as we have been doing, spending time looking at talent needs for the future and how we are going to grow the business, then we need to know if we have enough engineers to develop those products.

“Many CTOs like me around the world are doing the same and what we’re seeing is that if our talent is coming through STEM-based education, whether that is at degree level or apprenticeships or others, there are not enough people coming through to really bring in the talent that we’re going to need to enable businesses like ours to develop and manage this transition to green technology.”

So if there is a shortage of the right people coming through and the only solution for talent-hungry businesses like Cummins is to step in and set up a large part of it themselves, what is his view of the education sector at the moment?

Typically for Cummins, it is a question of collaboration rather than silos.

The Northern Echo: The crowds at Newcastle STEMfestThe crowds at Newcastle STEMfest (Image: Press release)

Jonathan tells me: “I think there’s more that we could be doing within our schools and colleges to encourage and articulate the value of STEM careers – and I make no differentiation of whether you want to do that at an apprenticeship level and be more practical-based or whether you want to go and do a degree.

“In either route, I feel that more can be done within a national dialogue on the value of a STEM education and engineering as a career in science and technology.

“I’d like to see more focus placed on that, because I think it’s going to be so important for the region, for the country and for the companies that are based here in the UK. There should be a stronger joined-up strategy about how we do that.

“STEMFest is a great way of showcasing what is available, but giving young people a live experience in our Darlington facility or Huddersfield or Daventry is a vital part of that.

As part of a national strategy, the approach builds clarity about what these careers are so that kids can make a more informed choice about how they pick their subjects and pursue careers.

“Let them see the product, meet the people that do the work and see what they get to do. It’s just a big eye-opener when we can do summer placements or work experience placements and have these young people and their parents see what we do and get another perspective.

“As part of a national strategy, that approach builds clarity about what these careers are so that kids can make a more informed choice about how they pick their subjects and pursue careers.”

As vice president and chief technical officer, Jonathan’s role for Cummins is global, and his work covers a vast range, but you can tell by talking to him and seeing the enthusiasm and passion that the development of skills and putting them to best use in the right place for his company is the essential wire connecting the start button to the engine.

“I am responsible for the technical function, working with close to 9,000 engineers globally,” he says.

“One of the most important parts of my role is the talent management strategy for the company and how we bring in the right skills to enable us to develop the right product and technology that we can then sell into the market and be profitable as a business.

“I help bring in talent, figuring out the skills we need, thinking about where technology is going – from how AI may shape how we do our work to a future which is zero emissions for commercial vehicles.

“Cummins is on that transition route and it will take a long time, but it’s moving and so thinking about skills, the technical needs, the investments we need to make to manage through that transition is a big part of my work.

“STEM plays a key role in that as I think about all the skills we’re going to need now and over five years, 10 years, 50 years – if I’m thinking about the talent strategy for 2040, that comes back to how we need to be supporting STEM in our schools and colleges today.

The Northern Echo: The iconic Cummins brandThe iconic Cummins brand (Image: Press release)

“I’ve spoken to quite a few of the senior people here and I know it’s in safe hands because I see a lot of very clever thinking going on. We’re on this path to zero emissions and it’s a really exciting time to be part of the company because this industry has probably not experienced a transition like it before. Probably the closest is when we stopped using horses to pull things for us.

“But now we’re making this move to a zero emissions environment and we don’t really know what technology is going to win out – probably multiple routes over many years. So thinking through that and making technology advancements that we don’t yet know how to do is part of the work – that’s what we want people to come in and be part of.”

For the last 58 years, the stability, resilience and level of innovation at Cummins in Darlington has ensured it remains a jewel in the region’s crown.

The unmatched and far-reaching implications of what Jonathan and his colleagues are doing here attracts attention and draws in investment to build another strata of bedrock as we all build a new future for the North East.

“What that does is bring in companies who build off that foundational infrastructure that’s forming and you get this virtuous circle,” says Jonathan.

“That attracts talent because people want to join and then you build on that and you start to have this circle of capability, great talent and future tech, and it all starts to grow and of course Cummins being part of that means we get the advantage of better skills as well as contributing to how they are developed.

“That growing ecosystem of like-minded businesses are looking to the future and are investing in it as they think about technology transition. When we all do that together as a region we end up helping each other because you build capability for everyone.

“That all makes Darlington a really exciting place to be right now.”