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IET: Demand for 'oven-ready' engineers fuelling skills gap

Engineering firms should stop expecting young people to arrive as ‘oven-ready’ employees and invest more in training, according to the Institution of Engineering and Technology.

Almost half of employers interviewed for the IET’s 2014 skills report released today said new recruits’ skill levels didn’t meet reasonable expectations, representing an increase in the perceived skills gap for the ninth year in a row.

The report also found:

  • plans to recruit more staff, particularly experienced engineers, were up five per cent on last year and driven mainly by business expansion;
  • almost 60 per cent of companies saw a shortage of engineers as a threat to their business;
  • there has been a significant drop in the provision of staff training in all areas except mentoring and on-the-job learning;
  • the proportion of female engineers remains stuck at 6 per cent despite numerous attempts to increase the profession’s gender diversity.

Overall, 44 per cent of firms were unhappy with new recruits’ skill levels – up from 33 per cent in 2010. As in previous years, the biggest problem was with graduate skills, as highlighted by 54 per cent of respondents. Confidence in school leavers has also significantly dropped since last year, with 44 per cent of companies expressing concern.

However, the report’s author, Stephanie Fernandes, said employers should be more realistic about what practical experience schools and universities could provide, and offer more opportunities themselves if they wanted to improve skill levels.

‘On face value it appears that the skills gap is getting worse,’ she told The Engineer. ‘But also it does beg the question how much of that is genuine skills shortages and how much is employers’ expectations increasing…There seems to be this general expectation now that new recruits need to be able to hit the ground running.’

Following a similar trend to past surveys, the report found lack of practical experience, technical expertise and leadership skills were the main problems with graduates. But 30 per cent of firms also named practical experience and 25 per cent cited technical expertise as the skills missing from school leavers.

‘Schools are where you get the basics – numeracy, literacy and general concepts – but it’s more concerning that graduates lack practical skills,’ said Fernandes.

‘There needs to be more clarity on things like practical experience because a lot of schools simply aren’t equipped to deliver that. If employers do want [more practical experience] it’s up to them to get involved.

‘They can work with schools and institutions to provide those opportunities, even for teachers. It’s not enough to say we’re concerned about skills. The time has come for employers to put their money where mouth is.

‘Especially at a local level where the skills needs are quite specific, if there’s a specialist skills need then it’s the responsibility of the employer to provide training. A balance has to be struck.’

There was some agreement with this idea in the survey, as 53 per cent of companies thought businesses like theirs could get more involved with educational establishments.

The report also found 59 per cent of companies saw a shortage of engineers as a threat to their business and 28 per cent thought they could promote themselves more to graduates. But a further 28 per cent thought there was nothing more they could do to address the problem.

Meanwhile, the number of firms offering staff the chance to take formal qualifications fell dramatically, with those providing short technical courses dropping from 92 per cent last year to 61 per cent this year. Mentoring and formal on-the-job training increased, however.

The overall number of apprenticeships has increased, with the number of Level 2 Intermediate apprenticeships more than doubling in the last year, but the number of Level 4 Higher apprenticeships has remained static.

Fernandes said she suspected most of the drop in training was due to cost and recognised engineering firms were still facing difficult economic conditions. But, she added, they also needed to keep up with the changing nature of industry.

‘Companies need to invest for the long term. If business is going to grow they need to be confident in their skills and invest in the future workforce like they would in other areas of business.’

Click here to read the full report.

Readers' comments (25)

  • "oven-ready" surely implies that the 'victim' has been slaughtered, their feathers and internal bits and pieces removed, and the whole carcase stuffed, sanitised and presented in a plastic bag with its legs stuck up its ...... Why am I getting the impression that a personnel/HR department are involved.

    Having identikit graduates is surely what all HR personnel want! They are much easier to employ.

    Mike B

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  • Surely it is not too much to expect candidates to have basic spatial awareness, organizational, self assessment and problem solving skills. These can be taught from very early years with much better efficiency than can be achieved once they have left school - the cost to companies of coaching and training in these critical areas is a serious drain on resources - if we want to be globally competitive we cannot afford to waste precious resource doing the obvious.

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  • I keep reading about this shortage since I started my mechanical engineering studies.

    I have had several interviews and each time been knocked back due to insufficient experience . . . . .banging, brick-wall and head spring to mind!

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  • There are plenty of graduates with the basic competencies in Maths and a 'can-do' attitude. What is missing is the specialist training for a particular engineering role. How can a learner get such experience without being given a chance?

    The obligation for investing in ones training has swung far too much to the learner and away from the employer. Our competitor countries understand the need for this investment far better than us!

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  • In my experience, poor definition of what skills and knowledge are required to perform your role as a graduate engineer and beyond are responsible for this apparent "skills gap".
    A gap by definition requires an understanding of current status and where you want to go - this will have to be defined in stages to be effective.
    My frustration is with the use of the term "experience" - as this is not synonymous with development or progress, however it's the easy way to measure "progress" as it can be done simply with "number of years service".
    This is a lazy approach to development which I have seen replicated in industry - and I see no excuse. Training programmes, skills plans and the like need to be owned by engineering departments, and implemented by them to contend with this apparent "skills gap"

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  • Many years ago there was a lovely book entitled "How to run a bassoon factory". In it budding industrialists were taken through the various departments in a manufacturing firm and the pit-falls and potentials for trouble were highlighted.
    In the section on R&D -which every firm was encouraged to have- there was a warning. "If you go down to your R&D section in a factory making bassoons, and ask what they are up to, do not be surprised to find that they are doing research into a new type of fireman's helmet: that happens in research." I think the point is well made. Having young graduates/Engineers who can think around a problem is important. Having their minds broad enough to be regularly outside their 'box' even more so. I take on board the wish that they should have the basics: Prof Carl Lawrence (Textiles Leeds Uni) always said that he wished the teaching at Leeds to create graduates, who not only knew about textiles, but were starting to develop the ability to 'think' like textile persons. Isn't that what those of us who have had the benefit of a life-time in a particular industry have: the ability to 'think' it through and to just 'know' how a particular matter might be resolved? Its rather unfair to expect that of new-comers to any industry. But HR will always still try.

    To Graham P; hang in there. Yes, too many firms who say 'experience' actually do mean age. Unfortunately many who claim experience (and age!) actually have 6 months experience, repeated 20 times, believing that is ten years experience. If your basic understanding of the principles of our application of Science is good: if you can precis a ten page report into a sentence, if you can give a decent presentation with minimal warning preparation and visual aids, shake hands firmly and with good eye will make it. Good Luck.

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  • There’s no doubt about it, a cultural change is needed in order to retain talent and to get the best out of people – whatever the gender.

    At Coventry University we work with the engineering and construction industries to support the development of their people. There are two extremes we often encounter – sheer ‘macho’ behaviour to men in engineering trying to be ‘gentle’ men, and then also women becoming more like men than the men in order to ‘fit’.

    This is not to say it is like this in all areas – however we are increasingly talking to organisations within these sectors that want to address issues such as these while trying to capture, retain and grow talent at every level.

    To support cultural change in the sector we are working with organisations at Coventry University’s Simulation Centre to use live scenarios to build a programme of behavioural change which can also support diversity, process improvement, first time right approaches and personal responsibility and leadership.

    We have seen some startling results – from improvement in retention, customer satisfaction and internal promotion, to reduction on snagging. The knock-on effects of a workforce which truly represents its wider customer base and is financially and culturally better off is there for all to be seen.

    We’ve lost count of the number of times our participants leave suggesting their experience has been life changing. It’s a small start, but to say ‘but it’s always been like that’ is not an excuse – not when with focus, feedback and coaching and support we can create a cultural step change now.

    Without further action female representation in engineering will only continue to be low, and we know more can be done.

    That is why we’re launching a programme for women in engineering which will focus on developing confidence in areas such as networking, innovation and creativity, leading teams, managing in matrix organisations, managing power and politics in organisations.”

    Jeannine Mortlock, Managing Director of Coventry University Services (CU Services), which manages Coventry University’s commercial activities

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  • It was at Coventry University (it was an excellent Polytechnic then) in 1990 where I had the privilege of starting my 'second' career -teaching in Higher Education. It was my good fortune to join, at age 50 what I believed to be one of the best Engineering Departments in the country: with first class caring and highly competent departmental/school management: and a series of outstanding (and for the most part with long and highly relevant industrial commercial experience -and a lot of experiences) academic colleagues.

    I had no wish or pretensions to become a manager: I sought only to teach and research. I looked forward to a long and valuable second career. I did not have the purely academic 'status' of many of my colleagues [I had an Honours Degree, Applied Science, St Andrews, 1964] but I had taught and practised (starting when doing Voluntary Service Overseas in 1964/5) Engineering topics throughout my working life.

    I had enjoyed a 25+ year international career in consultancy in Engineering (textile machinery) and in many highly specialised textile related products: and in the related commercial, management, financial, strategic planning and marketing skills and disciplines essential for me to properly advise and assist my clients. This was reflected in my immediate appointment at Coventry to Senior Lecturer Grade. Having assisted organisations ranging in size from multi-nationals to one-man firms and a series of Governments and Internationally recognised bodies of great stature, I believed, as did my seniors that I had an outstanding contribution to make to our students' learning and to the development of the University -which it became a year later.

    I was given immediate and complete responsibility as leader for the scope, development and implementation of an entirely new course/module: 308 MAN-Industrial System Design: which had as its primary goal, the techno-commercial rounding of final-year undergraduates into 'complete' technocrats. These students, including our Erasmus 'exchanges' with equivalents from Germany, France, Spain, were an outstanding group-and I had the good fortune to teach them, with a series of well selected and able colleagues -who joined my team- for four years. At one point we had over 200 students in a series of linked classes and activities. We had a dedicated room, we had four-hour 'slots' equating to the world of work, we encouraged a range of work, activities and links, by formal lectures, tutorials, group work and individual and joint projects: developing technical skills and knowledge and encouraging the 'soft' communication and data sharing and development skills and abilities necessary for a new graduate to demonstrate to his/her first employer. And the lack of which in too many students taught by traditional ways is a constant source of concern to employers. The heading to this 'blog' says it all. There is more!

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  • Its time to bring back proper indentured apprenticeships. Too many "schooled only" graduates without any practical abilities are lowering the expectations of employers.

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  • I've just graduated with a Masters (2:i) in Mechanical Engineering from Imperial College and am in the job hunt at the moment.

    Basically, for the skills they want, the salaries, professional development, pace of work and variety just isn't there. Why would I take a position that is lower paid and has little chance of progression when my skill set allows me to get better offers from professional services or consultancy companies?

    It's a shame. I love engineering but rather than a career it'll become my hobby.

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