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Engineering drives UK economic growth and lies at the heart of our quality of life. From advances in prosthetics to developing the next ‘big thing’ in electronics, engineers contribute £481bn to the UK economy, working in every sector imaginable.

There is solid econometric evidence that the demand for graduate engineers exceeds supply, and that this demand is pervasive across the UK economy. While the UK’s engineering giants, such as BAE Systems or Rolls-Royce, may not appear affected by a skills shortage because there is competition for positions in such high-profile organisations, it can be a huge problem for the smaller companies in their supply chains.

When UK companies in the supply chain struggle to recruit the right skills, or do not have sufficient resources to train staff, there can be knock-on effect that impacts the quality of a product or efficiency of production and ultimately may lead larger companies to find new suppliers.

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The UK needs 110,000 science, engineering and technology graduates a year, but only produces around two-thirds of this number. With 39 per cent of UK engineering employers planning to expand, there is a clear need to increase the supply of skilled workers. If we are to achieve growth and rebalance the economy, the government needs to be realistic about meeting these needs.

A recent debate at the Royal Academy of Engineering, held as part of the Engineering for Growth campaign, tackled the issue of whether the UK needs to import high-quality science, engineering and technology skills from abroad. This is a complex policy issue and there is no doubt that plugging the UK skills gap in this way brings its own set of issues and dependencies.

The debate panel and audience represented a diverse mix of engineers, politicians, economists, recruiters, policy-makers and think-tanks. On the panel were: Chi Onwurah MP; Sinead Lawrence of the Confederation of British Industry; Rosa Crawford of the Trade Unions Congress; David Brown of the Institution of Chemical Engineers; and Nida Broughton of the Social Market Foundation.

The consensus was that we do need to import high-quality, high-value skills to reduce the deficit, at least in the short term. Skilled migrant workers also play an important role in providing opportunities for an exchange of ideas and helping to mentor our home-grown engineers.

There are, however, barriers that are preventing sufficient skilled migrant workers from taking up positions in the UK. Onwurah, for example, warned that the complexity of obtaining a visa to work in the UK gives the impression that we do not welcome people, even though we need their skills. The panel also raised the issue of ‘anti-immigration hysteria’, which could be damaging Britain’s economic prospects. The reality is that we are operating in a global economy and we need to benefit from an international workforce.

While migrant workers are needed in the short term, it is equally important that we act now to increase the number of home-grown skilled science, technology and engineering workers. The audience and panel agreed that improved careers advice is critical in ensuring young people are aware of the exciting engineering careers available to them, and that they know the qualification requirements.

Recent initiatives to increase the number of apprenticeships are a step in the right direction, but support for more diverse routes into the profession is also needed. The revised engineering diploma, which will be made available in schools from September 2014, is a great step forward, but there is a long way to go in terms of ensuring society recognises the importance of engineers, and therefore that careers in engineering are seen as aspirational.

With other countries also looking to rebalance their economies by boosting manufacturing output, we are facing fierce competition for top talent. Action must be taken to ensure the UK’s immigration policy aligns with our economic requirements, and that our education and careers systems are equipped to inspire and inform young people about engineering jobs.

Sir William Wakeham FREng is the senior vice-president at the Royal Academy of Engineering

Readers' comments (7)

  • There are many unemployed graduates. There is also a distinct problem of low pay. Many who study engineering don't enter the sector after graduation. Many that do will leave the sector after 3 years and work in a related sector. Engineers are smart people and can do almost any job. The UK needs to look to compete with other sectors for engineers and it needs to look to compete globally. If not people will continue to leave the sector or move abroad. You certainly won't attract the right people here.

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  • I agree with the previous comment regarding low pay. At 16, I started an apprenticeship which lasted 3 years and I received a HNC and HND. A few years later and I've started a 4 year degree course. I'm now in the last year. A friend of mine has no such qualifications and is basically a glorified caretaker and yet is on more pay than me. How can this be justified??

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  • Thirty nine years ago I was offered a one year temporary work visa in Canada. I took the offer and along with others spent my year in finding out how other countries treat engineering personnel.

    At the end of my visa, I had to leave (overstaying not allowed) and return to the UK. Subsequently, I returned to Canada as an immigrant, where I still live.

    My points are:

    First. If there are to be temporary, technical positions for foreign workers, there needs to be a system in place to ascertain that they are the skilled people they claim to be and that they do not abuse their visa requirements.

    Second. Government, educational establishments and industry should be putting schemes in place to educate and train our own unemployed youth (and older members of society) instead of the continual calls for "skilled immigrants".

    Third. There needs to be a realisation that the UK is a finite area, with an existing infrastructure that is creaking due to an inordinately large population. How can we possibly support more people (immigrants) who eventually will grow old and require more people to take care of them. Any engineer with basic mathematics skills will see that this is an unsustainable future.

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  • I'm from Zimbabwe - heard this whole debate before. Same arguments about not letting skilled people in. It depresses me to hear the same stuff here.

    If a company finds it advantageous to sponsor someone to enter the country then so be it. Perhaps they have not just the paper qualification but the experience in some specific area or the contacts. Whatever enables a business to do more work and get started on it quickly is a good thing and has the potential to create a space for local people.

    It's the company's business to decide if the trade-off is worthwhile. If you make the visa system very restrictive then you might get that kind of H1 trap which people get into in America - basically afraid to ever ask for a raise in case they lose the job and are kicked out of the country. This could encourage companies to hire "low-wage-slaves" from the third world but at the moment it's the only disadvantage I can see and I think it can be adjusted for.

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  • As for finite areas etc look at this population map;

    Britain is highly urbanised. A tiny increment in the urban allocation would fit in an enormous number of people or give the existing people a much better standard of living.

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  • @Malcolm Cottrell: More engineers can help in setting right the creaky infrastructure! As for taking care of the old immigrants, they would first support the present old natives, wouldn't they?

    Lastly, if there are too many people, which isn't likely, then a few can certainly follow your example of migrating to Canada (or other places)! Canada has a lot of space...

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  • @Ank: I assume then that your are opting for a population growth (due to the "native" population having children, plus immigrants) in the UK that would be an ever increasing spiral? The end result being that all the surviving elderly population would need an ever increasing supply of new bodies to provide the wherewithal to keep them.

    As for there being too many people not being likely; 50 years ago the population was around 30 million (my figures), it is now 63 million. How many is too many?

    If we are over populated, some of us can emigrate. Hardly a logical attitude, the native population leaves to be replaced by immigrants?

    The answer should be that we should be taking care of ourselves and educating and training people in he UK and not taking the easy way out and obviating our responsibilities to our own peoples.

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  • The population in 1964 was around 54 million. Not our figures but the figures of the Office of National Statistics.

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