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The UK Engineering Skills Shortage

The UK Engineering Skills Shortage

About the Author

Chris Noonan

  • Chris is an L&D Engineering Consultant at Thales Learning & Development. He has 25 years’ worth of experience in systems engineering, 12 of which have been spent within Thales. Today he brings his wealth of knowledge to the learning and development sector by writing, developing and developing systems engineering training courses. Chris is a regular contributor to Enhance – The Magazine for Learning and Development.
  • Find out more: Thales Learning & Development

Considering it can be such an exciting career – for instance, where else could you put your stamp permanently on an area in the form of a new bridge, dam or skyscraper – there seems to be a consistent shortage of people with engineering skills in the UK. A report produced by Engineering UK states that, at all levels of education, the UK will not be capable of meeting the forecast number of engineers needed in the years up to 2022. 257,000 new vacancies will have to be filled, and it currently doesn’t look likely that this will be an achievable target.

What are the factors currently contributing to a shortage of UK citizens with engineering skills, then? The situation doesn’t become as dire as it looks to have become without a number of issues contributing to its decline, and if we are to continue to conceive the most impressive engineering projects ever embarked upon, it needs to improve quickly.

Disjointed training programmes

The myriad programs designed to address the issue are often fragmented and uncoordinated.

One of the features of the engineering industry has seen the government and various members of the industry launching development and incentive programmes independently of each other, which results in something of an isolated scattergun approach that has brought fairly poor and disjointed outcomes so far.

Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Erik Bonino, the chairman of Shell UK, said “It’s partly because the myriad programmes designed to address this issue are often fragmented and uncoordinated. Some schools benefit from multiple activities, others receive none. To put it in blunt business terms, the UK’s approach uses an inefficient delivery model and delivers a poor return on investment.”

Insufficient STEM training

44% of 14-18 year olds considered STEM subjects uninteresting.

At the basest level, there are not enough young people being educated in the STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) that are essential for any career in the engineering industry. This is perhaps because of the perception that they are “boring” and “geeky” as opposed to the arts and humanities subjects like English, Art, Drama and History – a recent study of 1,500 14-18 year olds by Mondelez International indicated that 44% considered STEM subjects uninteresting.

While the figures are perhaps not as discouraging as they might be without the influence of television programmes like The Big Bang Theory and anything presented by Brian Cox, schools and colleges have to do more to encourage boys and particularly girls to take on STEM subjects and highlight the benefits of a career in engineering.

Erik Bonino goes on to recommend in the Daily Telegraph that the government and industry firms concentrate on working together via the Tomorrow’s Engineers programme, which aims to give every 11-14 year old engineering experience with a local employer. This should help to start bringing the number of studying and employable engineering graduates up.

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Only 2% of parents stated they would like their daughter to become an engineer.

While it is difficult to attract boys into engineering at a young age, it is even more difficult to attract girls. Engineering undoubtedly feels (and has done for a long time, to be fair) like a bit of a boys-only club, with only a comparative handful of women possessing top jobs within the industry, much less entering it at a lower level.

Steve Holliday, chief executive of National Grid, said: “It’s incredible that while 12 per cent of parents stated they would like their son to become an engineer, only 2 per cent said the same about their daughter. By failing to inspire girls, we’re cutting ourselves off from an enormous pool of potential talent.”

It is patently obvious that, as in every other industry, women are just as capable of performing the same roles as men in. One of the challenges for schools, the government and engineering firms will be to attract them into an industry that may previously have appeared closed-off to them.

Little or no development of existing engineers

Over 40% of engineers will leave their current firms in order to move up the ladder.

In addition, it appears that not enough is being done to develop the existing engineers in the UK to their full potential, according to a study by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IME).

The study suggests the engineering industry is more focused on attracting the next generation of engineers as a means of plugging the skills gap, and the result of this attitude is that over 40% of engineers will leave their current firms in order to move up the ladder. According to the research, employees in their thirties are less engaged; 45% believe there are substantial obstacles to doing their job well, compared to 35% of twenty-year olds.

The development of an engineer does not cease once they have graduated and found their first jobs – skills and experience are only developed through on-the-job training courses and workshops, which should be carried through on a constant basis to help engineers reach their potential.

Migrant labour?

There is a shortfall of UK nationals with sufficient training and experience.

While it’s often used as an unfair claim by opponents of immigration, there is no doubt that the construction and engineering industries are two of the biggest employers of foreign, skilled labourers in the UK.

The construction industry, however, admits that it needs more, not fewer, workers from abroad. Richard Steer, chairman of construction firm Gleeds, believes it is actually getting harder to attract foreign workers, saying, “There’s less temptation for foreign skilled and unskilled labourers to come over now as their own economies have improved.”

This creates a paradox – the jobs are clearly available and free for UK citizens to take, but they are not doing so. The indication is clearly that there is a shortfall of UK nationals with sufficient training and experience, showing even more that something has to be done to rectify the situation. As a contributing factor to the UK engineering skills shortage, though, migrant labour is NOT an issue.

There are clearly a number of issues that are contributing a shortage of people with engineering skills in the UK, from schools through university to the engineering firms themselves, and the government has a big role to play as well. A coordinated, assertive campaign to attract new talent into the engineering industry from a young age will pay dividends, but the challenge is seeing whether educators, employers and government decision-makers can work in tandem to improve the situation in both the short and long-term.

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  1. Ben Zabulis

    A few years back I retired early from the ‘frontline’ and often combine two ‘passions’ (travel and civils) in promoting engineering careers, STEM subjects and apprenticeships amongst youngsters with particular emphasis on the travel opportunities so afforded, an aspect which many newcomers fail to appreciate. I have found that introducing a sizeable dollop of glamour and adventure can effortlessly prick ears; particularly the opportunity to ‘see the world’ say, an alluring prospect indeed.

    Incidentally, I was able to recount some of my ‘travel’ time in the book Chartered Territory – An Engineer Abroad, a diverse collection of both travel- and career-related anecdotes. By minimising technical specifics my focus lay primarily on lifestyle, cultural anomalies and humour in the hope of offering excitement and inspiration to the student, gap-year traveller or young professional. In effect I was actually working backwards by firstly selecting a well-loved genre with broad and innocent appeal (travel) but then, somewhat subliminally, feeding in a little work content to produce a travelogue with a skeletal trace of engineering – not a lot, just enough to entice. It hooked a few folks along the way !


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