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Academia's engineering skills shortage

Britain is short of engineers. It seems that is true in almost every sphere of engineering. But is it possible that the greatest need is not in the design offices, test laboratories or on the production floors, but actually in the corridors and classrooms of academia?

Although a highly academic subject at university, engineering is an industry that lives off the application and development of new technology, and so perhaps it makes sense to say that engineering should be taught, at least in part, by engineers.

Semta, the engineering skills body,  believes this to be true: it is necessary it says, that engineers with up-to-date experience of industry work in education in order to keep up the flow of new blood; experience enhances students’ learning and this ultimately attracts more into the profession.

But do engineers actually go into teaching? What are the opportunities for experienced engineers to forge mutually beneficial links between industry and academia?

Ann Watson, chief operating officer at Semta, says the industry’s view of the academic world is that it is not healthy, not what is needed; it is ‘stuffy’ and could do with a ‘breath of fresh air’. Indeed, she says that having engineers in the staffroom might be as important as having them in the classroom.

There is real concern within the engineering profession that an increasing number of higher-education staff teaching engineering have no industry knowledge or experience.

Ann Watson, Semta

Part of the problem is that teaching posts are being filled by new graduates as a means of funding further study. ‘There is real concern within the engineering profession that an increasing number of higher-education staff teaching engineering have no industry knowledge or experience. Many engineering graduates that choose to continue their higher-education studies and research activities full time have no option other than to accept teaching posts to fund their academic careers. ‘Hence some higher-education staff have no interest in teaching and this manifests itself in a poor learning experience for students. How such graduates can gain the necessary understanding and experience of industry-based engineering in a reliable and structured way remains unresolved with the UK.’  


Some claim that real industry experience is in short supply in the UK’s academic population

Watson says that while ground-breaking research within higher education around new technologies and materials gave academics the basis for sound teaching of those subjects and disciplines, they lacked the understanding of how industry applied new technologies and materials to design and make components, products and services. ‘This is where getting experienced engineers to teach in higher education would be so valuable.’

Good courses attract students, but students are not always the best placed to judge the quality of their teaching, she adds. ‘[Students] will judge the quality of teaching around the inter-personal skills of individual teaching staff. They would be unaware if teaching staff are out of step with current engineering practice used within industry.

‘Clearly, where students enjoy a good learning experience their feedback will help attract other students to study the subject; but, again, a good teaching experience could be out of step with industry and will only become visible when students graduate and seek employment within industry.’

Many within the profession would welcome higher-education funded infrastructure where academics and engineers from industry swap jobs for periods of one year

Ann Watson

Watson says that while employers and other ‘engineering stakeholders’ had a desire to see more engineers with sound industry experience teaching in higher education, proficient engineers can command higher salaries within the private sector, with arguably better career prospects. One solution to such a thorny problem is industry-funded secondments, and even job swaps, she said.’

‘Many within the profession would welcome higher-education funded infrastructure where academics and engineers from industry swap jobs for periods of one year; and where such academics have to spend this one year in industry every 10 years to refresh knowledge and learn how industry has changed within the 10-year period.’

Experienced engineers do teach in higher education, but they are most commonly employed on courses that have been established by individual companies. These courses are endorsed by an academic institution, places are reserved for the company workforce and the tutors are drawn from the experienced members of the engineering staff. This is a standard approach for large companies such as BAE Systems, which needs to develop a particular set of skills critical to its business and scarce in the marketplace, such as nuclear engineering. However, this is not a viable option for the vast majority of engineering businesses, with limited human resources.

Watson also suggests that financial assistance should be made available to foster this kind of exchange between industry and academia. ‘To create opportunities for sufficient experienced engineers to teach in higher education and make the necessary impact on a large enough scale there would need to be some financial encouragement, thus allowing smaller companies to hire contract engineers while their own engineers are seconded to higher education.’

Secondment schemes do exist, if in a slightly different form. For example, the EPSRC-supported Industrial Doctorate Centres (IDC), which allows students who want a career in industry to spend around 75 per cent of their time on the course working directly with a company.

Practising engineers and scientists are always in demand to bring real experience and colour to degrees at all levels.

Prof Chris France, Surrey University

The IDC at Surrey University offers an engineering doctorate, a four-year programme for researchers who aspire to key leadership positions in industry. The programme is academically equivalent to a PhD, but has one major difference, the student, or ‘research engineer’ spends the majority of their time at a sponsor organisation’s premises working on its commercial research priorities. They return to the IDC for short courses, conferences and seminars, designed to develop specialist technical knowledge.

Prof Chris France, director of the IDC at Surrey, says it relies on experienced engineers to deliver part of their tuition. ‘Practising engineers and scientists are always in demand to bring real experience and colour to degrees at all levels. For example, modules in the Centre for Environmental Strategy at the University of Surrey, where our Industrial Doctorate Centre is based, have a significant proportion of teaching given by such people.’


Does a university course adequately prepare engineering students for industry?

He adds that the IDC programme at Surrey enables a highly beneficial link between industry and centres of learning. ‘We embed our engineers in industry for four years and that gives all parties — the academics, the industrial sponsors and the students — the best-possible exposure to real industry practice. ‘The EngD makes a significant contribution to academic thought and to industrial practice. An example is a project we have been running with Sony Computer Entertainment Europe where the research engineer has produced two very high-quality publications alongside an evidence base that has had a demonstrable influence on European policy.’

It seems that everyone agrees it is a good idea to take advantage of industry experience when it comes to training the next generation of engineers, but does it actually happen on a broad scale?

According to a recruitment agency in this sphere, there is a demand particularly for engineers with experience in the automotive engineering, aerospace and defence sectors. But a lack of teaching experience can sometimes prove to be a stumbling block, says Heather Craddock, a client services executive at 360 Education.  ‘There is a demand. The problem is that obviously people who are coming out of engineering may not have teaching experience or teaching qualifications. The question is are the universities prepared to do a bit of training, or is it that the teaching experience is more important, therefore they might not go for engineers, they might go for the academic community who won’t necessarily have the engineering background. That’s the difficulty we find.’

Readers' comments (17)

  • The big problem is that universities are not teaching engineers in the practical sense.
    They may be the employers first choice if you wanted a desk based stress analyst or a mathematical systems model, but if you wanted a person to take a CAD model of a automotive or aircraft part and work out the most efficient way of machining it from a solid billet and actually make one, then quite frankly a university graduate would be my last choice.
    Industry is left to pick up the tab and shell out for exceedingly expensive CAD/CAM courses for new recruits and after this you then end up with a desk based wiz, who hasn’t a clue what you can and can’t do with a 4 flute end mill.
    Far too much time is spent on theory and stuff that has very little or no practical use.
    I interviewed a so called "motorsport" university graduate not so long ago and he couldn’t even put PTFE tape round the right way on a pipe fitting.

    Show me a university that will give a degree level course for practical 5 axis CAD/CAM engineering and my company will happily employ the end product by the coach load.

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  • I broadly endorse this article. After my PhD was awarded in 1990 I was tempted to stay in academia but didn't want to lecture what I had only learned from a book. Sadly, many do not feel the same. I now have 24 years' experience in industry and I occasionally lecture in robotics at various universities - but the fee versus the time to prepare makes this almost a 'charitable donation' (especially now that I am a freelance consultant, hopefully many years from retirement). But the need is there - I have seen a few 'current' examples of lecture materials photocopied onto OHP (!) from books current in the 70s listing the joys of punch paper tape for CNC machining; "Show a YouTube video, perish the thought".

    There needs to be a mechanism and funding for people like me to be able to get involved, even if it is only to put some icing on the cake prepared largely by current, usually excellent, academics.

    And the "teaching us how to teach" argument may be a red herring. Many at the top of their game in industry have to present and communicate excellently to 'sell' their work and ideas; whereas a few academics have never received this message let alone training and feedback in how to do better.

    Academia and industry can and must work together on this to give our best to the next generation of engineers. Count me in, but show me how.

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  • I think it would be useful for engineers in industry to go on day release to universities and schools to teach. It is something I missed out on at school and it is what really gauges the interest of future engineers. Being able to apply the maths and physics to the real world. I have already taken the opportunity to teach at a local school every so often starting next year. It will be a great opportunity for them as much as it is for me.

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  • Certainly the point that Dave Hopper makes: "Academia and industry can and must work together..." is at the core of improving engineering education whether for aerospace, automotive, or other disciplines.

    There are myriad ways in which collaboration, teaching models, learning and environment and many other factors can improve standards. At FISITA (International Federation of Automotive Engineering Societies) we're working on ways to help share best practice, as well as discuss trends issues and challenges on this subject.

    The FISITA World Automotive Congress in 2014 will be offering 2 specific sessions on the future of engineering education and how we can produce graduate engineers who are "fit for purpose":

    Do take a look and get involved in the debate in Maastricht:

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  • A course in "practical 5 axis CAD/CAM engineering" seems more like training than education. Universities cannot, and should not, spit out production-line fodder.

    Which bit of the degree course should include the ability to "put PTFE tape round the right way on a pipe fitting"? Isn't that a mechanic's job?

    I'd rather have an engineer who can design out the need for PTFE tape on pipe fittings.

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  • Academic education is only one part of the formation of a professional engineer. Think - engineering degree + 2 years skills training, + 2 years in positions of increasing autonomy, before professional registration.

    The first two years of an engineering degree really are about delivery and understanding of fundamental concepts and principles. These are integrated through engineering design, which in my experience has always been delivered by engineers with considerable industry experience, often augmented by visiting professors.

    Thankfully, engineering degrees are not accredited by SEMTA, but by Chartered Engineering institutions, on behalf of the Engineering Council.

    Frankly, I would not expect an ambitious graduate to take a desk job immediately after graduation, especially with an employer who had no interest in assisting the graduate to complete the requirements for registration.

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  • @Michael Kenward
    In response to your comments, which many engineers would find offensive.

    The whole point of of the point the article was around the fact that their is a lack of skilled engineers in the UK and a larger shortage of industry experienced engineers in universities.

    "Universities cannot, and should not, spit out production-line fodder" ! production line fodder ????
    I would hardly call a ten year plus experienced engineer earning £35-£80k production line fodder.

    The point i was trying to demonstrate is that universities are failing to equip students with the real-world skills they need as well as what employers demand.

    The NC-HNC-Degree path some take or the NVQ 2,3,4 levels still don't produce engineers of a higher enough practical/useful skill level.

    Unless a graduate engineer has had basic real-world skills how are they ever going to be capable of designing anything that is actually practical to make and use ?
    I get asked to quote new parts on a daily basis designed by degree level so called engineers, who draw things that can't be made or are incapable of understanding tolerances or a basic level of DFM.

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  • I am an EngD research engineer from the Surrey IDC working in a civil engineering consultancy. I agree with this article and argue that the lack of academia’s permeation into industry is just as pronounced as the lack of industry focus in academia. I have read many publications claiming ground breaking research, only to find out that the idea is purely theoretical, the methodology too abstract to reproduce or that key assumptions are made incorrectly due to a lack of industry knowledge. If research has no utility then it is by virtue useless.
    To be truly successful, academia should focus on preparing graduates to become graduate engineers and ensure that state of the art research can translate into state of the art practice. To support this, industry should feedback best practice and provide guidance to academia. As far as benefits to academia and industry, I can only see good in the idea of academic / industry job secondments. If you ask me, both industry and academia need to walk on the other side of the grass every once in a while, if only for a fresh breath of air.

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  • "Education is what remains when all that has been learned has been forgotten."

    Delighted to see the many comments in this blog-and others on related topics.

    As Engineers, it is surely the application of science(s) at which we should excel: and doing so is an art form, just as expressive as that shown by one of the great masters of paint and canvas. I recall a story about one being asked.."how long did it take you to paint that picture" and replying "all my life!" Every brush stroke I make is applied with the background of the thousands I have made before....the analogy between that and what we do as experienced Engineers is surely absolute.

    Haven't we all been in situations where we have just 'known' that a certain course of action or a solution, in a given set of circumstances is 'right' and applied it!

    How do we get that level of skill into young Engineers?
    By giving them the chance to make mistakes and learn from them?
    By stopping them...doing so?
    By making their education (not training) sufficiently broad that they will start to literally 'feel' our profession and be embraced by and embrace it.

    I recall a comment about a former PM-who was apparently well trained in the sciences, but, as her policies showed, was not well educated. I have seen others within my career similarly deficient. Humility and humanity, added to ability, far-sightedness and and inventiveness? Is there anything more that we should ensure is present in a young Engineers mind?
    Mike B

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  • "Show me a university that will give a degree level course for practical 5 axis CAD/CAM engineering and my company will happily employ the end product by the coach load."

    When an internationaly renowned manufacturer transferred production to CAD/CAM, there was an immediate need for specific training, which was provided as a consultancy by a neaby university that was well resourced in CAE/CFD/CAD/CAM. I cannot remember if the system was McDonnell Douglas or PE, but both were taught, at different times, as generic systems to the BEng Manufacturing Engineering, and more selectively to BEng/MEng Mechanical Engineering students, who were introduced to AutoCAD in year 1. The university has the facility, and among academics and technicians, the capability to process from solid design model to manufacture, and this formed the subject for several PhD and KBP.

    If you really want coach loads of engineers trained in CAD/CAM, this is one way to go. Otherwise, you might consider a partnertship with a university, and sponsor a post grad student.

    I am very concerned by the sweeping, un referenced generalisations made by Semta, which I believe to be misleading. I remain a believer in the need to gain first hand experience, and in this respect, it would perhaps help if Semta, like the former EITB, and university engineering departments, was led by engineers.

    I was involved with EITB, in top down, industry led, engineering curriculum design at then NVQ level 5 (then post grad). To meet the needs of specific sectors, many competencies were expressed in generic form. This was fine, until we came to identify the underpinning academic knowledge and understanding.

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