What Can Be Done About the UK's Engineering Skill Shortage

The UK Engineering Industry is Suffering a Massive Skill Shortage - What Can We Do About It?

The UK’s engineering industry is facing a skills shortage of unprecedented levels, and it is vital that all of those invested in the future of British engineering work together to remedy this shortfall. The effort needs to be collaborative, relying as it must on a change in public perception, educational reform and corporate support. 

How bad is this skill shortage?

There is a skill shortage plaguing many industries in the UK, but few are struggling more to find the talent they need than the engineering sectors. The Government’s Shortage Occupation List cites an incredible variety of engineering jobs currently regarded as suffering severe shortages, including Civil Engineering roles in the construction industry, such as geotechnical and tunnelling engineers, and in the oil and gas industry; mechanical engineers; electrical engineers in the oil and gas industry, the electricity transmission and distribution industry, and the aerospace industry; electronics engineers in the railway and automotive industries; and many more.

Beyond those listed as official ‘Shortage’ occupations, there are many other skill specialisms experiencing a shortfall of talent and a struggle to fill positions across many UK industries. 

The Royal Academy of Engineering estimates that the UK will need more than a million new engineers and technicians by 2020 to meet industry demand. Engineering UK’s The State of Engineering 2016 report claims that the need is far greater: the UK will need to find 182,000 people with engineering skills every year to 2022. Their data shows a current shortfall of roughly 69,000 engineers and technicians entering engineering or STEM-related employment per year

"Without the development of these [engineering] skills, the UK will be unable to complete the vital infrastructure projects in the transport and energy sectors the country so desperately needs. We need enough people with the right skills to be confident of the country’s economic growth.

It is time that the country’s economic priorities are reflected in the education sector and that science and technology subjects are promoted to more than just the obvious candidates. We need to change the way engineering is promoted and make it more attractive to more students by championing the creative aspects of the discipline and the fundamental role engineers play in our society to sectors as diverse as healthcare, food production and conservation." - Peter Finegold, head of education and skills at Institution of Mechanical Engineers

Peter Finegold, head of education and skills at Institution of Mechanial 

What are the causes?

A lack of education, primarily regarding what engineering really means, is often touted as the core cause of the skills shortage, but perhaps there's more to it.

Lack of knowledge and education

The IET’s Engineer a Better World study spoke to more than 1,000 children aged 9-12 years old, as well as their parents, to find out their perceptions on engineering. 

These Shortages are compounded by insufficient numbers of young people, especially girls, choosing a career in engineering. I am convinced we will only overcome these challenges . If all those with an interest in UK engineering commit to greater collaboration and partnership 

Nick Bloes, Minister of state of skills

They wanted to discover what factors inform parents’ and  childrens ’ idea of engineering, as well as anything currently preventing parents from promoting engineering as a career to their children, and if there were anything that might encourage them to do so. 

The responses showed that children are often interested in engineering-related activities, such as gadgets and new technology (62%), drawing and designing (56%), and making and building things (51%). The report states that ‘fewer are interested in finding out how things work/are made (44%) [and] a third are interested in computer programming/coding (34%)’. While 44% may indeed be ‘fewer’, if 44% of the UK population decided to pursue a career in engineering or other STEM-related fields, a skill shortage (in those fields, at least!) would become laughable. 

The problem lies more in the way that children – and their parents - perceive engineering careers. For example, the study quotes a boy from the 11-12 age group who said “ICT… I’m awesome at that! But that’s computers and technology, that’s not engineering.” 

The mother of a boy aged 9-11 said that “to me, engineering is welding, hands on. Sort of like the whole concept of cars and machines, and the mechanical… I think of mechanical engineering. Garage-y, lorries. Not a nice area to be in, really. It’s in the word, engines… the whole, cars and fixing.” 

Both children and their parents are woefully uninformed about the scope, breadth and variety of the possibilities that a career in engineering can provide. This is one of the key causes of the current skills shortage.  

Focus on hiring experienced engineers: neglecting younger prospects

Another, though less discussed, cause of the skill shortage currently experienced by many engineering and technical companies in the UK is the propensity of companies to compete with one another for the experienced portion of the workforce, driving wages up and neglecting the younger job seekers. While the rise of wages is beneficial to those receiving it, it also causes problems for young workers, who are priced out of the market. They often find the job market largely uninterested in their ambition, drive and ethics, since they come coupled with a lack of experience. Companies appear to prefer to increase wages to entice already-trained engineers, rather than investing money in training new graduates in on-the-job skills. This leads to a top-heavy workforce with a lack of new blood, which can cause stagnation and a slowing of innovation. 

What’s the solution?

Improve public perception and education around STEM-based careers

The first hurdle that must be surmounted in order to combat the skill shortages plaguing STEM industries is this lack of education among children, and their parents, of the opportunities offered by a career in STEM. We need the next generation to understand that engineering is not all oily hands and monkey wrenches, but covers a far broader scope than most of us can imagine, with effects that can be seen in every walk of life. 

The STEM community are already working hard to introduce new initiatives aimed at improving kids’ engagement with science and engineering, but the number of young people graduating with STEM degrees is still far lower than we need it to be. Even worse, a report published last year by the Royal Academy of Engineering showed that fewer than half of engineering graduates go into professional engineering jobs – even those that have been convinced to study engineering are then going on to work in other fields and industries!

Responses of parents interviewed during The IET's Engineer a Better Future study

A huge portion of the UK engineering industry is populated by SMEs, who often lack the resources to participate in out-reach or apprenticeship programs. It is vital that larger companies and organisations take advantage of their immense means to support the industry as a whole and their smaller brethren by taking on the responsibility of improving the perception of engineering. Working with schools and educational institutions, for example with mentoring or outreach programs, could immeasurably improve the public understanding of the real meaning of a career in engineering, which would lead to increased numbers of children entering the engineering industries. As the IET’s Engineer a Better World study showed, once children – and indeed adults! – understand the vast range of opportunities available to those in engineering and its related disciplines, they are far more likely to consider a career in a STEM- or engineering-related field.

Educate companies and organisations on the benefits of hiring and training more young people

This tendency of engineering graduates to work in fields other than engineering highlights another issue, in my opinion, and one that can be remedied by the very companies and organisations in need of new talent: engineering companies currently focus their recruitment predominantly on experienced engineers and technicians, neglecting the lower echelons of the talent pool. 

They compete fiercely with one another for an ever-diminishing pool of experienced talent (thanks to the aging population and dwindling numbers of post-16s choosing STEM), raising salaries and offers in order to edge each other out and secure the very best personnel available. This focus on the top of the talent pipeline fails entirely to take advantage of the opportunities offered by recruiting and training new, young graduates. 

By hiring young engineers fresh out of university or apprenticeships, companies can benefit from having new minds to train in the way they prefer, as well as the imagination and ingenuity that often comes with being young and wanting to prove oneself. This can be achieved at a fraction of the cost of hiring an experienced engineer, especially with the current level of competition for talent driving up wages, and also provides the added benefit of feeling good about fostering a new generation of talent and forestalling the worsening of the skill shortage currently plaguing the industry. 

The STEM industries are in dire need of an injection of new talent, but without educating current students as to the opportunities inherent in a career in STEM, and without the industries themselves reassessing their hiring practices, the problem is unlikely to improve any time soon.

Read More

Engineering UK’s State of Engineering 2016 Report

The IET’s Engineer a Better Future Study

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