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Semta report warns of engineering skills shortage

An engineering skills council has warned growing UK industries like nuclear will lack a sufficient amount of technically capable workers to fill jobs in the future without urgent action.

Semta, the sector skills council for science, engineering and manufacturing technologies, has revealed research showing approximately 30,000 skilled engineers need to be added to the UK workforce per year between now and 2016 to fill the gap of highly skilled workers reaching retirement. The new research echoes controversial claims made by Engineering UK (formerly the Engineering Technology Board) in its 2009 annual report that the engineering industry needs to recruit 587,000 skilled workers by 2017.

In contrast, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills expects the UK’s combined skills academies to attract more than 300,000 people to training programmes over the next four years.

Philip Whiteman, chief executive of Semta, said across the spectrum of engineering sectors approximately 30 to 40 per cent of workers are 45 years old and older.

Semta claims a new highly skilled engineering base can be grown from academia and apprenticeship programmes and even recruitment in the current workforce.

While certain ‘mature’ engineering sectors such as the metals industry are likely to shrink over the years due to competition from abroad, Whiteman said, there will be a need for a new generation of engineers to drive innovation in these areas.

He noted the announcement last month that Sheffield Forgemasters secured £80m of government funding to buy and install a 15,000-tonne forging press for developing large steel components for next generation nuclear reactions Read our in depth report on the Sheffield Forgemasters deal here. The capability for this was only previously achieved on the industrial level by Japan Steelworks.

There will also be a growing demand for engineers in industries such as nuclear, electronics and clean technology.

Whiteman said the main challenge for attracting young people to engineering is changing the perception of what an engineering career is like.

‘I think engineer is a word used in the UK to describe lots of different occupations which is a bit misleading because an engineer repairing your fridge or your car would not have the skills necessary to do a job in our aerospace industry,’ he said.

‘What we’re focusing on is high level technical skills. These are the sorts of jobs where you’ve got job security because there is more demand than supply. They’re quite well paid and offer lots of opportunity to travel because most of the industries we service are global.’

As far as recruitment in the current workforce, Whiteman said a key focus will be on ‘re-skilling’ workers.

‘There are quite large numbers in our sector who have no qualifications and they’ve learned on the job,’ he said. ‘They’ve got skills and experience but they actually need to learn new skills and get new experience in order to the meet the highly skilled and more technical job priorities of the future.’

Whiteman said one of the main advantages of an engineering degree is it is applicable across a wide variety of industries; meaning a worker who has lost their job in a mature industry could easily retrain and get a job in a growing sector.

‘The example I use is the nuclear industry,’ he said. ‘You get lots of people asking you about nuclear engineers, most of the engineers that work in the nuclear industry will have the same skill set as people who work in an engineering organisation in a mature engineering company because all they do things to a higher quality because of the plants and the installations, it’s mostly similar activity you’d be doing in a normal engineering works.’

Whiteman said one area he expects the government– whether it is Labour, Conservative or Lib Dem – to give greater attention to is apprenticeship programmes.

‘We need more apprentices because two thirds of the skills shortage we project will be in technical skills, which are best reduced by having more apprentices coming through the system,’ he said. ‘We need the employers to be taking on more apprentices and we need the government of any hue to support apprenticeship activities.’

Readers' comments (9)

  • I do wonder whether Mr Whiteman is genuinely concerned about the development of the engineering profession or is just seeking to comply with government thinking, support its political messaging and ensure that his own interests and future are secure.

    I am deeply concerned about the state of the engineering profession in the UK and the lack of jobs and investment, but what makes it worse is when we are told that there is a huge and growing demand for young engineers, when those in the profession who are highly qualified cannot get jobs!

    Rather than pontificating on the subject of a pent up demand for young engineers, I would like to see a far more pro-active approach from SEMTA and the Engineering Institutions pressing for a Chief Engineer post in government, pressing for investment by the City in real jobs in high-technology engineering rather than the legalised betting that brought the near collapse of our financial instititions and if retraining of engineers is required, pressing government to retrain those engineers who are currently jobless to adapt their knowledge, expertise and talents to the new engineering skills market now.

    I wrote the following letter the Mr Whiteman, but to date have not received a reply. It seems to me that so many of our senior civil servants / institution leaders are out of touch with what is truly happening on the ground.

    1st April 2010
    Dear Mr Whiteman,

    I have just read two articles in ‘Professional Engineering’, the first regarding a cut of between 18 and 35 Systems Engineering staff at the University of Reading and the second based upon an interview with yourself, regarding an apparent requirement for the UK to produce 30,000 new engineers and scientists a year until 2016 to replace retiring workers.

    I would therefore like to set SEMTA a challenge. I am an exceedingly professional and highly qualified Chartered IT Professional and Chartered Mechanical Engineer and yet I have been unable to secure a job over the past 14 months. Since SEMTA has done the research and knows where these engineering jobs are, could you put me in touch with these organisations as well as circulating my CV to the SEMTA board, so that I can do something positive for society, rather than wasting away in abject frustration because, although I have been highly creative and earnest in my search for employment, I have to date not been able to secure work.

    I have attached a copy of my CV, outlining my talents and skills.

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  • This story is not dissimilar to that printed on 01 Dec 09 entitled Skills Shortage Concern and linked on this page. My previous comment (with name change) is reproduced below.

    The list of those people with whom Mr Whiteman's remarks do not strike a chord seems to be getting longer; I add my name to it. Coming from a military background, where I admit commercial awareness may be limited, I have had little success sucuring a suitable role in the South West. I have applied for numerous positions and don't get any more than an emailled acknowledgement that my CV has been recieved let alone an interview. If anyone knows of a company who would welcome an application from an ex REME Warrant Officer with 22 years engineering experience in some the the world's toughest environments I'd like to know about it.

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  • While i whole heartedly agree with the first post, i would also add that "skills transfer" is being totally ignored by those responsible for engineering, and Governments.
    Many engineers, myself and the previous author; have considerable skills, many transferable between multiple industries, but we are being overlooked. Surely the promotion of skills transfer is considerably cost efficient and much shorter in time then training someone from scratch.

    As a large section of engineers are over 45 it would make sense to bring on board the considerable additional experience such engineers have, it only benefits the employer.

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  • "Philip Whiteman, chief executive of Semta, said across the spectrum of engineering sectors approximately 30 to 40 per cent of workers are 45 years old and older."

    That doesn't suggest a top heavy spread of ages to me.
    If most people work from around 20 to 65, then an equal spread of ages would result in around 45% aged over 45. Factor in earlier retirement and life expectancy, and 30~40% aged over 45 suggests a fairly balanced spread of ages.
    If it was 30~40% under 45, then I would be concerned.

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  • I have seen the similar situation in South Africa and now in Australia. Press trumpets about shortage of engineers, but there are too few jobs for existing ones. However, accountants never have a problem finding a job. So, perhaps governments should get them to design and maintain technical systems?

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  • I agree with all the comments made so far. One which has not surfaced is the effect of the emasculation of engineering and manufacturing over the last ~40 years in UK and also in Australia where I live lead by ignorant, timorous politicians and accountants who have no understanding and cannot see beyond their noses.

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  • ‘What we’re focusing on is high level technical skills.’

    Yet SEMTA's COMPACT and all their efforts in the past two years have been focusing on NVQ2 and 3.

    "Whiteman said the main challenge for attracting young people to engineering is changing the perception of what an engineering career is like."

    The Manufacturing Technologies Association are actively addressing this with the creation of an 'Education & Training zone' as part of the MACH 2010 trade show. Bringing industry and education together is surely the only way to resolve these issues.

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  • It seems to me that in the main, industries have not been willing to budget for training youngsters, or spend on transfering skills of existing engineers for many years. We find ourselves in a predicament of a shortage of engineers partly due to the negative advice handed down from those who have lived through the last 30 years in the industry. Youngsters are not stupid & won't apply for engineering training even if it is available when they're typically told ' its a dying profession '. There's a lot of healing to be done to undo the term 'Engineer' as a 'dirty' word metaphorically. Industry has to wake up and publically celebrate our engineers and where companies are willing to invest in training of any sort they equally must invest in being able to keep those newly trained engineers to reap the rewards.

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  • It looks like Semta also have a skills shortage - these people must live in ivory towers in the middle of London to come up with rubbish like this.

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