Wednesday, 23 July 2014
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Engineering as it really is

The Royal Academy of Engineering has tracked down science, engineering and technology (SET) workers for a new report called Jobs and growth: the importance of engineering skills to the UK economy, and it reveals some surprising results.

The UK Labour Force Survey (LFS) is a mine of information. More than 100,000 people complete the survey each year giving details of their occupation, working hours, wages and so on. The LFS uses a standard classification system for both occupations and economic sectors and those surveyed ‘self-declare’ their role in the labour market according to the classification that best fits their employment status.

By grouping occupations into those that are most obviously in SET we have been able to identify where technical skills are deployed in the UK and the answer is pretty much everywhere - although the concentration of SET workers varies between sectors. We find high concentrations of people doing SET jobs in Media & Publishing and in Business Services as well as in more obvious sectors such as Manufacturing, Utilities and Construction. Overall, around 80 per cent of SET workers have occupations that are related to engineering or technology (including IT).

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The traditional industrial sectors are now not the only place where engineers can use their skills of numeracy, analysis and creativity

That engineers and other SET people find technical jobs in all sectors of the economy is a cause for celebration for those involved, as this pervasive demand for technical skills has resulted in a graduate wage premium for engineers that continues to grow while the graduate premium across all degree subjects falls. The UK generates good jobs for engineers – this is a message that we need to convey to young people so they too can access careers that are rewarding, worthwhile and in my experience at least, fun.

‘That engineers and other SET people find technical jobs in all sectors of the economy is a cause for celebration

However, the pervasive distribution of engineers doing technical jobs does make us re-consider the nature of engineering as a discipline. One conclusion from the Jobs and growth report must be that engineering skills are portable around the economy, which is a good thing to emphasise to young people along with the proviso that they gain the science and mathematics qualifications required. Another conclusion must be that classifying the structure of the UK economy with a division between ‘production’ and ‘services’ looks increasingly arbitrary. Engineers use their creativity, numeracy, scientific knowledge and computational thinking to create value throughout the economy with the high levels of productivity signalled by the wage premium they attract. We are also relying on them to help create the market conditions where that productivity can be exploited: after all, economic growth comes from raising the number of productive hours worked and that is determined by the ability to trade and make sales. Engineers need to create value and help sell value.

The report puts a number on the SET jobs (1.25 million) that will be created between now and 2020. These build on general UKCES forecasts published in December 2011 and although most jobs will be there to replace people leaving the workforce due to retirement and other reasons the forecasts do have to take into account the ongoing recessionary state of the UK economy. It is good to note that demand is seen for both graduate engineers and engineering technicians with wage premia indicating that the demand exceeds supply for both. Technician pathways into the engineering profession are attracting renewed attention these days with more government policy focus on apprenticeship than before and young people considering all routes to good jobs including, but not being limited to, university.     

‘It is good to note that demand is seen for both graduate engineers and engineering technicians with wage premia indicating that the demand exceeds supply for both

Jobs and growth tries to identify engineering as it really is: not just a sector, not just a profession but a consistent thread traced through both the economy and the labour market. It also embodies the hopes of many of us to see the grand challenges of society tackled, such as climate change, energy, food, water and health, and a return to a more sustainable form of economic growth. Engineers are key to all of this.

Professor Matthew Harrison is Director of Education at the Royal Academy of Engineering and author of “Jobs and growth: the importance of engineering skills to the UK economy”. Available to download from www.raeng.org.uk/jobsandgrowth


Readers' comments (3)

  • Another persuasive reason for a new Institution of Engineers to replace the existing many institutions.

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  • Engineers with MBAs are better than non-engineers with MBAs - period. Let's spread this message.

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  • I went to a school that had as its Title -The Royal Masonic Institution for boys: sadly the word 'Institution' has I believe all the wrong connotations!
    I am sure that there is a much better word for the newly proposed group. If we are going to re-brand -and I know we must....let us break away from convention and actually describe ourselves as what we do!
    How about The Competence of Engineering, the Ability..., the Completion...I throw the floor open to others to make suggestions.

    Best wishes
    Mike B

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