All hands on deck to create UK engineers of the future

stuart thumbnailStuart Nathan
Features editor

The engineering sector is a bright spot in the UK economy, but the looming skills shortage is alarming. The whole community needs to be involved to help solve it.

The annual report from EngineeringUK, the organisation that promotes the interests of the engineering sectors to the public and to government, makes for encouraging reading while simultaneously being rather alarming. While setting out the state of the sector as profitable and productive, it also calls attention to the scale of the shortfall in engineers that the UK is facing in the coming decades, as experienced engineers enter retirement and the nation’s educational establishments struggle to keep pace with the need to replace them.

Young engineers show off a robot car they have built. Image courtesy of Diamond Light Source
Young engineers show off a robot car they have built. Image courtesy of Diamond Light Source

Faced with the choice of good or bad news first, we at Engineer Towers always prefer to bolster our spirits before gazing into the dreadful abyss. So let’s start with the cheerful stuff: in 2014, the report says, engineering contributed £455.6bn to the UK’s GDP, and was 68 per cent more productive than the retail and wholesale sectors. It directly employed 5.5 million people, of whom two-thirds are qualified engineers or technicians, and supported 14.5 million other jobs; and for every new engineering job created, two more are created in other sectors.

While the UK remains a less productive economy than others in Europe, with labour productivity 17 per cent lower than our competitors (possibly owing to factors such as lack of investment and mis-measurement), it was the fastest-growing economy in the G7 group in 2015.

The profile of the engineering sector is one that may surprise even insiders. Rather than being dominated by large players, almost four-fifths of all engineering companies employ four people or fewer, and although only 0.4 per cent of employers have over 250 people working for them, these employ 42.5 per cent of all engineers work. This still means that a significant majority of engineers work for what would be categorised as an SME; companies which often lack the funding or facilities for in-depth training. As we shall see, this could be very significant.

Going around the country, the report says that Scotland saw the greatest growth in engineering enterprise turnover, although businesses in the London region showed the greatest revenue and growth. The report notes that the think tank Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR) recommended a shift in job-creation towards higher-productivity sectors, while encouraging firms to invest in their employees; while government intervention has focused on supporting infrastructure and skills.

But the skills gap is still a great cause for concern. The report says that between 2012 and 2022, UK engineering companies will need to recruit 2.56 million people; of these, 257,000 will be to fill new vacancies rather than replacing people. 1.82 million of these recruits will need engineering skills: that’s 182,000 per year. Of these, 56,000 will have to be at the equivalent of Advanced Apprenticeship level (also known as Level 3), and 107,000 at undergraduate degree or HND/C level or above (Level 4).

But currently, the annual numbers entering at Level 3 are 27,000 and 66,000 at Level 4. Clearly the shortfall is large; and these numbers indicate it’s not just a matter of attracting experienced people who want to change jobs, although anecdotally we know that these people sometimes face difficulties from employers who are unwilling to help them retrain for a position related to, but not directly following on from, their previous experience. Possibly the resource difficulties of SMEs may be playing a part here, as noted above.

The difficulty doesn’t seem to be in keeping engineering graduates and apprentices in the sector: the report shows that very few end up in sectors like finance and insurance, which have sometimes been suspected of leeching away prospective engineering talents with the lure of higher pay; in fact, over two-thirds of engineering trainees (for want of a better description) in full-time employment after three years are in engineering occupations. Rather, it’s our old familiar problem: getting schoolchildren into STEM-related courses: and that goes from picking GSCEs with physics and maths content, to taking science A-levels, and then studying engineering at university; or going into apprenticeship schemes at 16 or 18.

The situation does seem to be improving. Five years ago, the report says, 27 per cent of 11-14 year olds thought engineering was a desirable career, and 37 per cent of 15-16 year olds would consider a career in engineering; in 2015, those figures had risen to 43 per cent and 49 per cent respectively. A larger amount of coverage of engineering and more favourable depiction in the media might be responsible; encouragingly, we’ve just learned that London’s Victoria & Albert Museum is launching its first ever engineering season this year, including a special exhibition devoted to Ove Arup. “We may not know it, but engineers organise the world we live in,” comments V&A director Martin Roth. Really, Martin? You work over the road from Imperial College! If you didn’t know it, what hope is there for anyone else? But sarcasm aside, this is a very welcome (if seriously overdue) development. The opening of the new Design Museum site down the road in Holland Park this year will also be welcome; but these institutions are obviously not accessible to many.

Lack of information about the realities of engineering is an obvious issue for schools. Nobody is exposed to engineering at school directly, and the applied maths modules of GCSE and A-Level only gives a taste of engineering calculations. There’s some in physics, and maybe in the better-equipped CDT workshops; but going from school to engineering, whether as a degree or apprenticeship, is going to be a step into the unknown. Teachers don’t have the knowledge to prepare students for that (and with their existing workload, can hardly be expected to), so it has to fall to careers advisors, who need help. Engineering employers have to engage more with local schools to give students more idea about what they do, and the Engineering Associations need to increase their involvement too. This is especially true for reaching out to underrepresented groups, particularly girls: the EngineeringUK report is adamant that the gender balance has to be addressed. It has hardly shifted in 30 years, and the potential skills the sector is missing out on can’t continue to be wasted.

Is money a problem? Anecdotally, yes: if there’s one thing we can count on whenever we cover this issue, it’s respondents bemoaning their lack of salary. But hard evidence doesn’t bear this out: engineering starting salaries are 20 per cent higher than the average graduate starting wage. Is this skewed by London wages? Undoubtedly: all salary averages are. It might hardly be fair that Scotland has the largest growth in engineering enterprise turnover but lower salaries than London, but that’s the reality of the UK. At least the cost of living is also lower (not much consolation, we know, but if there’s a straw, we’ll clutch it).

What is certainly worrying is the comments we receive from people who say they wouldn’t recommend engineering to their children. It’s worrying because research indicates the one thing that’s almost guaranteed to get young people to take seriously the idea of an engineering career, and the best way for them to understand what it involves, is to have a member of the family in the profession. Engineers complain – everyone complains – but this is something that they should be aware of.

We need to double the number of people entering engineering at the training and education level, EngineeringUK says. We also need to ensure there are enough STEM teachers; which is not a trivial matter and may be as challenging as the other target. It’s not something we can ignore, and it’s something the engineering community needs to be more involved with.

As readers will have noticed, we’re now on a new website platform, and adding functionality all the time. We’ve now done away with the need for commenters to go through a lengthy registration process, so feel free to let us know your opinion. We’ve also regained our ability to create polls, which we can now embed into articles. This week’s poll relates to the EngineeringUK report, so if you haven’t responded yet, please do.