Tackling the Engineering Skills Shortage

It’s widely recognised across the engineering sector that there has been a skills shortage that has been continuing to grow over the last five years. Last Year the Government declared 2018 as the ‘Year of Engineering’ in an effort to promote the sector and highlight the problem, but more needs to be done at grass roots levels to address the sizable skill shortage that continues to grow.

When children begin to think about the jobs they would like to do when they grow up, they might want to be train drivers, but they rarely want to build trains. Today, most want to be DJs or TV presenters or Vloggers. The interest in STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Maths) is relatively low and it’s not just in the UK. In the European Union (EU), there are a number of countries reporting various bottlenecks in different engineering fields. Employers have had long term problems finding and hiring staff and see no change in the future.

So how big is the problem? “It’s a constant issue for us as a growing company and we know it’s sector wide. Engineering UK puts the annual shortfall of graduate engineers at 20,000 I believe that’s a conservative estimate. A government study suggests 186,000 skilled recruits are required each year until 2024 to reduce the skills shortage. That’s over 1 million people,” reflects Chris Smith, Almond Engineering, Managing Director.

In the short term, placing more people in engineering apprenticeships is the first step in addressing the balance. “We need people with the right engineering orientated skills and while we will look at engineering graduates there is real benefit in developing our staff on the shop floor while arming them with the theoretical skills and practical training at college,” says Chris.

Almond Engineering recruit their apprentices with the help of EDETA (Edinburgh and District Employers’ Training Association). “We are seeing a growing trend towards people considering an apprenticeship rather than heading to University. The ability to get industry experience, develop within a company and acquire college training to build skill sets has an appeal. University fees and the prospect of student debt is also playing a part in making apprenticeships desirable,” says Brian Thorpe, EDETA Chief Executive Officer. “We are working closely with employers and colleges to ensure that training meets industry need and that colleges deliver strong practical and theoretical courses that build the skill sets needed from Modern Apprenticeships in Engineering.”

“It’s important that engineering companies have access to well-trained new recruits with the current skill sets needed and we find apprenticeships play a key part in providing this. A recent report by the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) suggested that that up to 62 per cent of engineering employers say that graduates do not have the right skills. They say that young graduates are bombarded with random, theoretical skills, instead of giving them more time for training opportunities and working schemes within the industry. I think this is unfair comment and we find both apprenticeships and university graduates provide different skills and knowledge both much needed in engineering. In my experience, people who have completed engineering apprenticeships are highly skilled professionals and can build a career to anything. Many large companies are run by people who started their careers as apprentices. Graduates are at the start of their engineering career, need industrial experience generally, but fill a vital role in engineering and again are well placed to build a great career. Many of the top 10 Forbes companies are run by engineering graduates. While access to engineering talent is part of the engineering shortage problem, I also think more needs to be done to make engineering a choice career for young people,” suggests Chris.

While government initiatives such as the Apprenticeship levy help new people of employable age into the engineering sector, a long term solution is to make engineering careers attractive to children in schools. Ann Watson, Chief Executive of Semta is championing activities in schools to make engineering a desirable career for boys and girls. “It’s not just about work placements, we need to be starting much earlier. It’s even more important that at school they are not receiving negative messages about the sector. We need children of primary-school age to be given the opportunity to see what a modern cutting-edge engineering workplace looks like. So many young people who have an engineering skill and aptitude are lost to the sector because they’re not given that encouragement earlier.” says Ann.

“Almond believes this is important and we visit local schools to talk about the engineering industry with teachers and pupils to bust common myths about the sector. It’s important that the people who influence children’s career aspirations understand how prestigious and rewarding an engineering career can be. They are surprised to learn precision engineering is highly technical and how clean the working environment is,” reports Chris.

Much is being done to address the skills shortage crisis engineering is experiencing. A freely available diversity packs from Semta provides approaches and support for employers attract girls into the sector. Local training providers such as EDETA continue to refine apprenticeships to meet sector demand and the government has introduced measures to help finance recruitment in the sector. Plugging the skills gap is going to be a long process, but there is hope. Recognising the engineering crisis in the UK is the first step towards solving it.