The engineering skills shortage - how can it be solved?

As Britain works towards a prosperous and sustainable future for the country and its citizens, one thing it will need is a strong and reliable supply of engineering professionals.

Engineers are responsible for designing and constructing the modern world we live in, from transport infrastructure to the increasingly innovative buildings that are required to accommodate people and businesses without inflicting damage on the environment.

It has become abundantly clear in recent years that the UK's current pipeline of engineering talent is not sufficient to meet the country's needs, meaning decisive action is required to improve the supply of skills.

The scale of the problem

Skills shortages are often cited as a major impediment to the ongoing growth and success not only of businesses, but the UK economy as a whole.

In a survey of 762 company leaders published by the Institute of Directors in December 2017, 39 per cent of respondents cited skills shortages and the employee talent gap as key factors that are having a negative impact on their organisation. Only the UK's economic conditions (50 per cent) and the uncertain trading status with the EU (43 per cent) were seen as bigger issues.

EngineeringUK, a non-profit organisation that works to promote the profession and inspire future engineers, estimates the industry is facing a shortfall of some 69,000 skilled employees every year.

A Wired magazine article published in April 2017 cited experts arguing that the shortage of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) skills in the UK should be viewed as a "national crisis".

Richard Peckham, strategy and business development director at Airbus Defence and Space, told the Westminster Business Forum that the UK "hasn't been producing enough STEM graduates for years" and no real action has been taken to tackle the problem.

There is clear concern around this issue, so what current and future measures could make a positive difference?

Tackling the problem

Addressing skills shortages in engineering - along with other key professions and sectors - is undoubtedly a big challenge that is in urgent need of a solution.

One point that all industry authorities appear to agree on is that Britain needs to do a better job of inspiring people and getting them interested in engineering from a young age. The schoolchildren of today are the potentially world-changing engineers of the future, so the education system needs to lay the foundations for these vital skills and support their ongoing development.

Dame Judith Hackitt, a Royal Academy of Engineering fellow and chair of manufacturing trade body EEF, said the UK has the potential to become a leading player in fields such as advanced manufacturing and digital technologies, which should be attracting the brightest talents.

"But we're failing to inspire young people to take up careers in engineering," she added.

This is something the government is clearly aware of. In November last year, it was announced that 2018 would be the Year of Engineering, an initiative that aims to deliver one million "direct and inspiring experiences of engineering to young people".

Business and energy secretary Greg Clark said: "Engineering makes a significant contribution to our economy and this government is determined to strengthen it further. To ensure we have a high-skilled economy that is fit for the future, our industrial strategy is committed to helping people and businesses by boosting engineering and ensuring everyone has the skills needed to thrive in a modern economy."

When it comes to young people making the transition from regular education to the world of work, apprenticeships could have a key role to play. In its latest State of Engineering report, trade organisation EngineeringUK argued that stronger understanding of apprenticeships could unlock valuable talent for the profession.

It pointed out that the country needs 124,000 people a year with core engineering skills, but nearly six out of ten 11 to 14-year-olds (58 per cent) know very little about apprenticeships.

EngineeringUK chief executive Mark Titterington argued that it is "incumbent on all of us to help young people to see how apprenticeships in particular can offer a very credible, valuable and rewarding career route into engineering".

Another important part of the puzzle is ensuring that, once engineering professionals have started their career, they are incentivised to remain on their chosen path, regardless of their background or ethnicity.

In a recent blog, Jason Ford, news editor at The Engineer, referred to research from the Engineering Construction Industry Training Board which suggested that black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) graduates receive lower average salaries and have fewer employment opportunities than white university leavers.

EngineeringUK analysis suggested that, in 2015, 71 per cent of white engineering graduates were in full-time work six months after leaving education, compared to 51 per cent of BAME graduates.

Addressing these inequalities, and giving young people the right information and incentives to work towards a fulfilling career in engineering, will prove vital if Britain is to develop the skills it needs to continue innovating, evolving and succeeding.

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