How we can avoid the biggest engineering skills crisis in a generation

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Vince Cable, former Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, once described engineering as “central to Britain’s economic future, as it creates highly adaptable skills that are valuable across the whole economy and bring the opportunity for long term jobs.”

Few would disagree with that sentiment. There is, however, a widening skills gap in UK engineering, which, if not addressed, could prove detrimental to the industry’s future. The Institution of Engineering and Technology’s (IET) most recent Skills and Demand in Industry report found that 50% of employers find that a typical new engineering and technology recruit does not meet their reasonable expectations in terms of skills and knowledge.

 According to Semta – the sector skills council for science, engineering and manufacturing technologies – Britain is facing a shortfall of at least 80,000 skilled workers, as senior engineers retire without enough well-trained apprentices or graduates to replace them.

bored studentLack of enthusiasm in young people

There can be no doubt, then, that more, and better skilled, young people are needed in engineering. Yet recent research by Engineering UK highlighted a further decline in the number of people under 19 taking engineering-related Advanced Level Apprenticeships.

Clearly there is a worrying lack of enthusiasm among the younger generation for what was once an extremely popular career choice. But what exactly is turning them off?

The Engineering the Future group – which includes the Royal Academy of Engineering, the Institution of Engineering and Technology and the Institution of Mechanical Engineers – says the problem is exacerbated by young people’s perception of what a career in engineering and manufacturing involves, and the way in which related courses are taught.

“There are a lot of misconceptions about manufacturing among young people: that it is badly paid, has high redundancy rates and is dirty, physically demanding work,” it said. “The lack of career advice and the national curriculum losing modules in design and technology at secondary level will have a negative impact on future manufacturing.”

Perhaps the solution, then, lies in communicating what engineering actually is, and the breadth of applications it has. Space shuttles, fighter jets or robotics, for example, are some of the more ‘sexy’ areas of engineering. And what about Formula One cars, or the systems that fly unmanned aircraft across entire oceans? These areas of engineering are the ones that could potentially entice a generation of children who are looking for an exciting career path when they leave school. The work and research that engineers do is literally world changing, and much more could be done to drive that message home to young people.

gender gapThe gender gap

Research from Tomorrow’s Engineers Week found a particular lack of enthusiasm among girls. Sixty Five per cent said they wouldn’t even consider a career in engineering, with a quarter of that group saying they didn’t think engineering was a suitable career for women. Perhaps even more telling, though, were the views expressed by parents – 76% of those with daughters said they hadn’t encouraged them to consider engineering as a career option.

Such a stark imbalance of gender in any industry can only increase the risk of an overall skills shortage, as the potential pool of candidates decreases. Where other professions – such as medicine – have faced the same issue, the situation has been successfully rectified to a certain extent. But clearly engineering still has a long way to go when it comes to gender equality.

The question, then, is how to change the current perception that engineering is predominantly a man’s career. Professor John Perkins, former Chief Scientific Adviser at the Department for Business, expressed some very positive ideas about how to overcome the issue. In a report published in 2013 that reviewed the state of engineering skills in the UK, he urged the government to support women in returning to professional engineering after a career break. He also called for high profile campaigns targeted at young people, particularly girls aged 11-14 years, with inspirational messages about engineering and diverse role models.

rise apprenticesThe rise of apprenticeships

One way to encourage young people into engineering could be through an increase in apprenticeship opportunities, which is something the government is actively promoting, with a commitment to creating three million apprenticeships by 2020. Many young people – particularly those who prefer practical pursuits over academic ones – might be put off by three years of study required in order to attend university, not to mention the mountain of debt they’ll incur once the recently increased university fees are taken into account. But the chance to work and learn (and earn) simultaneously, applying that learning as they develop, might appeal to them more.

There has already been some encouraging development in this area. While not specifically directed at the engineering industry, ‘The 5% Club’ – an industry-led campaign – encourages organisations to have apprentices, sponsored students, or graduates on formalised training schemes make up 5% of their total workforce. Research by Barclays found that an incredible £4.4bn could be injected into the UK economy if enough businesses achieved this.

Progress has been made elsewhere, too. In 2013, Engineering UK called for collaborative action on the state of engineering, to be delivered by 2020. Positives so far have included a 6.3% increase in the number of engineering graduates, a 2.1% increase in the number of young people studying GCSE physics and a 3.1% rise in A-level physics entrants. Additionally, there has been a 35% increase in face-to-face engagements with teachers across a number of engineering careers fairs, providing those teachers with valuable support in delivering information on engineering career options.

progressStill more to be done

Despite such progress, there is still a great deal of work to be done if the supply of highly skilled UK engineers is to meet with future demand. Perhaps an increase in the number of engineering apprenticeships is the answer, or perhaps significantly more should be done at school level to show the impact engineers have, and persuade the next generation of young people that a career in engineering is a desirable option.

The most likely solution is a combination of the two. If young people are unenthusiastic about a career in engineering, then they are unlikely to seek out an apprenticeship in the field when they leave school. If they can be convinced that a job in engineering is a good idea, but there is a lack of opportunities for them after they’ve finished their education, then the outcome is the same. Engineering is an exciting, varied industry, with a rich history in the UK. But private organisations, government, teachers, and even parents, must work together if the growing skills gap is to be closed.

This article was originally published in issue 1 of Enhance magazine.