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Skills shortage? What skills shortage?

If you find yourself redundant, it must be pretty galling to repeatedly read that engineering skills - your skills - are in short supply. 

When late last year we reported that Engineering UK had identified a need for 587,000 new skilled workers to meet increased demand in areas such as green energy, aerospace and transport, our story was met with a chorus of incredulity. ‘If our skills are in such short supply,’  readers asked ‘why can’t we find any work?’ 

But still, it seems, not a day goes by without someone from either government, or one of the many quangos with an engineering and technology brief, identifying an engineering skills gap.  

We would argue that the term ‘skills shortage’ not only paints an unnecessarily bleak picture, but is also a little insulting to those who have spent decades honing their skills on the coal-face of British industry. Instead perhaps it would be more helpful to lose the phrase “skills shortage” and characterise the problem as a ‘skills transfer’ issue.

It’s clear that many areas of UK industry which historically, and until relatively recently employed large number of skilled engineers, are unlikely to return to their former glory anytime soon. But it’s equally true, that a range of emerging industries - from renewable energy, to low carbon vehicles and advanced manufacturing, do present significant opportunities for the UK. And rapidly retraining and repurposing the skills of engineers from areas of industry that are in decline will  be key to exploiting these opportunities. For more on this, have a look at our news story Making The Best It, which looks at how the skills of Corus’ Teesside steelworkers might be turned to the manufacture of wind turbines.

At the root of all this there’s an optimistic message for engineers wondering whether they might after all have been better off following that career in the city. There are a range of emerging industries which present significant opportunities for the UK, and these industries require skilled engineers. What’s required now is for government to match its words with deeds and properly get to terms with the challenge of transferring engineers’ skills into industries with promise. There’s no time to lose.

What do you think the future holds for the workers affected by the Teesside Corus mothballing? Are their skills transferable or relevant to the future of UK manufacturing? To have your say on this emotive issue, please send us your comments and take part in our online poll.

Readers' comments (83)

  • When I was at school various institutions constantly harped on about a shortage of engineers. At the same time, the engineers were moaning about poor pay and opportunities.

    There is no shortage of engineers. There has been no shortage of engineers since I left shool 21 years ago. There is unlikely to be a shortage of engineers in the near future.

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  • My son and mate who are electrical engineers have both been unemployed since Christmas with no sign of work.
    Consultants that work for me are also finding work in short supply. The gaoling thing is that I work adjacent to a LIDL UK GMBH,SUPERMARKET

    That is being refurbished. The work force is probably German (looking at the vehicles) and materials are being delivered in Polish and Lithuanian Lorries

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  • I left school 24 years ago and have worked extremely hard in engineering since. The pay is terrible and people in general do not understand how things are engineered. The problem is a total lack of regard or respect for engineers. The doctors and bankers get all the respect and all the money!

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  • Thank you for having the courage to raise this issue. The sad fact is that there is no requirement for skilled engineers in the UK. I am just over 50, am a chartered mechanical engineer as well as a chartered IT professional, speak 2 foreign languages fluently and yet I cannot secure an engineering job after 14 months of effort!

    Many people, especially many media commentators (national TV channels and broadsheets) are paying lip-service to government by agreeing and propogating the message that there is an 'apparent' skills shortage in engineering, without honest reflection. But there are very few people who have the courage to stand up and say hang-on a minute, is this really reality?

    If we truly need engineers and are truly focused on re-generating our engineering industries through innovation, why will the government not establish a chief engineering officer post? And why, if we want to attract our brightest young talent to the engineering profession, will will not distinguish between our highly skilled engineering technicians and professional engineers as is the case in other European countries. And why are professional engineering salaries in the UK so much lower than those of other professionals? Until our professional engineers have the same standing as lawyers, bankers, doctors, dentists and other highly qualified workers, we will continue down this path of economic decline.

    Having a balanced manufacturing and sevice economy is the only way to maintain a stable and growing economy, coupled with 5 year investment returns, not the ridiculous 6-9 month returns now being demanded by the stock markets. We all know how to solve our problems, the difficulty is no one has the courage to stand up for and challenge the status quo for fear of losing their jobs and pensions. I've already lost, so can speak out, but need to keep my name annonymous, should I eventually find another job. What a sad world we live in!

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  • In the context of Safety Engineering then I also hear of skills shortages but the problem lies in either unintended discrimination or 'click' culture. For example as an experienced CEng with a Masters Degree in safety engineering I should be able to work in Nuclear, Oil and Gas, Railways or any environment but I find that as I have Military Aviation experience that I am constrained to the aviation world. Apply to Oil and Gas and get no reply YET THEY MOAN that they LACK safety engineers!

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  • I dont believe there is a shortage of engineers or skills in this country, but there is a distinct lack of respect for those skills. There seems to be and has been for many years a culture of looking down on engineers by people who`s lives would be impossible without us, and that has translated into us now being a country with very little manufacturing capabillity. The profile of us engineers should be raised and rewarded, that way more young people will wish to take up engineering and prevent any future shortage.

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  • The problem is not a skills shortage. It is an unwillingness to pay for the skills at the going rate. Employees are imported and paid much lower rates.

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  • In May 2009 I was unfortunate to lose my job at the height of the recession.
    I have managed to secure short term work which unfortunately ended last year putting me back in this awful depressing situation of looking for work in the worst hit area of the country North East England. I have two degrees and postgraduate qualifications and still cannot find work. Our skills are being lost having to migrate to jobs such as caring and retail to make ends meet which is a tragedy for this country.

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  • Do we have a skills shortage? Or is it that the skills and knowledge gained from many engineering educational establishments is not relevant or of any real use to the 21st Century engineering profession?

    As someone with over 30 years exeperience in the profession (Yes it is a profession!) and 25 years in education I have looked back at my own education and discussed this with many practicing engineers and have been constantly frustrated with so called engineering technology which bears little relevance to the skills, knowledge and perhaps more importantly, competence that engineers/technicians/practitioners actually need or are equipped with to fullfill their job functions.

    More concerning in recent years is the clear dumbing down of training (and subsequent examinations) in many fields of engineering to suit the very different students knowledge/skills/abilities which in my view, will be a cause of concern over future years to come.

    "Unconscious ignorance" seems to be exactly that. Both from the trainers and the course members on the receiving end of many training courses which are out of date with regard to technological advances and often reflect the knowledge of the tutors rather then the needs of the syllabus or indeed, the needs of the industry sector.

    So can the skills of the Corus personnel be transferred? Well yes, if there is the correct training in place which clearly identifies the skills, knowledge and competence that is required for a new product, product behaviour, new materials etc.

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  • Searching the job ads - All the "emerging" industries are asking for people with relevant experience...

    Its like the 1980's all over again, can't get a job without the experience, can't get experience without a job!

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