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It's time for action on engineering careers

‘This needs big money, coupled with doing something about the education system and especially physics teaching.’ These weren’t the words of Prof John Perkins, who published his report for the government on Britain’s engineering skills shortage this week. Instead they came from Prof John Wood, who published his report for the government on Britain’s engineering skills shortage in November 2000.

It was no wonder then that the Perkins Review came with a lurking feeling that we had heard it all before: engineering is vital to the country; a growing skills gap risks hampering economic growth; we need to improve education and attract more young people into the profession. Much of this was being said 30 years ago, never mind 13.

The difference with the new report is that it places responsibility for addressing these issues squarely on the shoulders of industry and the educational sector as well as government. Perkins recommends several very specific activities that engineering firms and their employees can engage in to boost recruitment into the sector and improve training, although there are several more vague points (employers must propose ideas to reduce short-term shortages) and an absence of more structural changes. Nonetheless, it is a welcome call to action for a profession that cannot rely on anyone but itself to solve its problems.

The Engineer came to a similar conclusion in its recent report on how some companies have successfully increased the number of women engineers they recruit, part of the special Women in Engineering magazine we published this week. It wasn’t through government sponsorship or quotas, but by repeatedly and consistently reaching out to more girls and young women, visiting schools and universities to spread the word and making sure factory trips and educational programmes weren’t dominated by male students.

It’s rare to find an engineering company in the UK that doesn’t struggle to hire people with the right skills. Even the big firms whose apprenticeship and graduate schemes are overflowing can find it difficult to recruit for more specialised, experienced positions, and are typically worried about employment in their supply chains. It’s why, despite often-heard grumbles, average salaries for engineering graduates are above the UK norm. And, as has been the case in many other sectors of the economy over the last decade, it’s why employers have often turned to immigration to fill the gap.

But, as Perkins recognises, this is not a long-term solution. And it doesn’t matter what salary a job offers if there aren’t adequately trained people to apply for it. Government, universities and colleges need to work with employers and institutions to make sure qualifications and training schemes are up to scratch to produce more sufficiently skilled home-grown engineers.

Perhaps most importantly we need to recognise the implications of the sad reality that engineering is not even considered never mind aspired to as a career choice for the majority of young people. A better careers advice service is vital but, whether it’s due to a bizarre British snobbery that favours bean counting and litigation over the art of designing and making things, or more often through simple ignorance of the possibilities engineering offers, this issue can’t be addressed through government reforms alone. Nor is it a problem that will go away just by throwing money at it, although it probably wouldn’t hurt companies to look again at how their salaries compare with those overseas.

It requires a concerted effort to explain to young people, teachers, parents and the public in general what engineers do and why they have such valuable and rewarding careers. Whether it’s by offering work experience, approaching schools to give talks to students and staff or even getting more involved directly in education, engineers and their employers can make a difference. The time for reports is over; let’s take action. Problem solving is what engineers are good at.

Readers' comments (13)

  • One reason that many of bright youngsters – especially girls – can’t do engineering, is that they study Maths, Chemistry & Biology at A level because they believe that this is the only acceptable combination for medicine. Later, when many have changed their mind away from medicine – or failed to make the grade – they find themselves locked out of a great career in engineering because they don’t have Physics A level.

    I know from personal experience from those around me that a medical career only needs Maths, Physics & Chemistry : My wife and daughter are both successful medics who did Physics, not Biology.
    In fact, only 7 out of 31 (21%) of medical schools insist on Biology.

    There is a huge amount of disinformation about this: most parents, most schools and most careers advisors don’t know the facts and tell school students that they have to study biology for medicine. If we could get the truth out to teenagers today, we could change the future course of Great Britain for the better.

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  • There is a great opportunity coming up for engineers and their companies to get stuck in. In 2014, Technopop will be running for 8 weeks in London. This will be a festival of future technology, designed to excite and inspire youngsters. We plan to have 200,000 children, teachers and parents getting involved in the latest technologies.
    I am CEO of a company called 'it is 3D'; we are involved because the organisers asked us to curate the 3D zone. This section alone will be fantastic. There are also a science zone, a digital technology zone and a built environment zone.
    The headline sponsor is The Crystal, Siemens' cutting edge building in London which showcases the future of cities.
    We are looking for sponsors, speakers, mentors, exhibitors, competitions etc.
    For more information, please drop me a line. I can then email a copy of the Technopop brochure.

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  • Bloodhound SSC - that is all.

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  • As in, that's the model for what should be done, or that's all that's happening?

  • I think that The Engineer and arguable the Engineering ‘establishment’ have got the whole subject of getting young people into engineering wrong. I agree the solution is as Perkins recognises needs to be long term. I’ve been following this myself for at least the last 3 or 4 years (see my previous endless ‘Keith Flett type' comments on it) but I see that the discussion in terms of reasons for the problem – plus the solutions are hackneyed and potentially may make things worse. There are too many threads to this debate to go it into in a comment, but as unpractical as it may seem let’s start at a cultural level . (theory before practice – makes a better engine.)

    So I think engineers need to ask ‘what is education for?’ – seriously – All of these initiatives to big up engineering (make relevant?) the TE parts of STEM (often at the expense of other parts of education such as English, foreign languages, history and literature) mean that we are asking children to (a) partially commit to a ‘career’ very early on and (b) implicitly telling them that education is largely for ‘molding’ them in to engineering/business fodder by narrowing education into being technical/practical/pragmatic. No wonder that the brighter often less career oriented students (at least at 14-18) often steer clear of engineering subjects at Uni as it may (appear) to close down options. To me education should be wide (and irrelevant to technical careers – as good education in maths and the sciences will deliver this) and (intellectually) free – to develop confident thinkers who can work over a wide range of topics some practical some not.

    Related to this (and I have yet to decide if this is good or bad) is the recognition that amongst the much expanded (culturally at least) middle class in the UK – your job, profession is a large part of your identity and significantly defines it. By pushing technical/engineering aspects of education ‘up stream’ – my guess is that students will be setting up their identities towards more adult professions such as engineering too soon.

    My solution? Too soon to say – but I think we have to challenge Industry that wants fully formed office/design fodder straight out of uni. With a good general education – people will have the confidence to pick up technical skills on the job and through post university training.

    Just a question – but how many staff at The Engineer studied technical/ engineering subjects? Education is too valuable to have as its starting point the end use of business or industry.

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  • The point made by several people now that the UK education system specialises too early is a very strong one, and one that is increasingly recognised by people in engineering and the lower levels of policy making but perhaps has yet to really break onto the mainstream education agenda. Certainly if physics was carried on by everyone to age 16 or even 18 there would be much less need to promote engineering careers to under 14s.

    There is also a danger that employers do expect too much of recent school leavers/graduates in terms of practical skills and experience.

    But just because a more general education would mean more people could become engineers, it doesn't mean they would.

  • There's plenty of interesting stuff going on out there. Try to take it into schools, and hard-pressed staff, constantly having to react to the latest governmental imposition, simply don't want to know.
    The present 'grey-beard' generation of engineers grew up with things like Meccano, with Dad fixing stuff. Having to fix their bike because it was the only one they were going to get. Engineering was part of life from the start. Now it isn't. The vast majority of parents don't know how the stuff they use works and certainly never fix anything. The time to get youngsters interested in how stuff works is in primary school. Certainly before they pick their GCSE subjects. After that, it's too late.
    We don't teach engineering, or its history in schools. It's not considered an 'academic' subject. Maybe if we showed youngsters early enough we'd grow a few more engineers.

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  • Engineers will always be in short supply until society finally realises that they must provide proper financial rewards.
    Lawyers, politicians, advertising agents etc. receive large sums without contributing to the countries wealth. Engineers provide a large amount to the GDP. Until Engineers are given just reward there will always be a shortage.

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  • As an unemployed engineer, what can I tell youngsters?

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  • Why not teach engineering itself as a topic at school?

    I found Maths and Physics uninteresting because there was nothing much to use them for....except computers. I could use maths in my computer projects to a small degree e.g. 4x4 matrices for rotating/translating things and all the usual geometry. I did even use a bit of physics to make animations.

    Computing was the only place I could put any of the theory to use. Hence I'm a programmer now but it's a bit unsatisfying to be only able to have power in the virtual rather than real world and I rather envy engineers.

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  • In my opinion schools in the UK are far too lenient. In most European countries it is compulsory to study maths and at least one science subject at A level. In England a lot of students are happy to take "Mickey Mouse" subjects, they should not be allowed to do so.
    There is also far too much emphasis placed on GCSE's when in fact they are not worth the paper they are written on. I have gotten to the stage where I disregard any statements potential employees make about their GCSE results as a waste of my time.

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  • Re editor’s comment ‘But just because a more general education would mean more people could become engineers, it doesn't mean they would’ .

    I still think that there is an element at least of engineering jobs being properly ‘adult’ occupations (ie require long term commitment and something that may be interesting to a 23-30 year old (who has hit the real world) may be less so to a 14-22 year old- ie can appear ‘boring’) . I see nothing wrong as such with promoting engineering as being a good thing – for any age, but let the young be young at university (at Oxbridge you can completely change subjects once there). Internships and work experience might be good for some, but if I were 16/17 I’d probably rather be working at a PR office in London than an automotive design office in Coventry or MK (but later in life priorities change)- so an internship may actually put young people OFF at a young age.

    As well as promoting engineering’s ‘good works’ though, I think that we need more people (who happen to be engineers) who are prepared to enter the public/media space and not just as experts. We need people who are prepared to test (not just technical) ideas in the public sphere (from the Today program and Question Time to 8 out of 10 cats) and not be worried about being wrong or making fools of themselves- if we are to overcome the idea of ‘stuffy’ engineers. Not every engineer will want to do that I know and it’s a chicken and an egg type thing, but we need passionate young leaders who have an opinion on anything if we are not to remain the back room Barnes Wallis boffins/geeks. There are no short cuts here – if we want a better societal status we need to earn it rather than whine about it.

    Another element relates to our view of the future – from the 40s-the 80s the UK still had big projects that would inspire a significant number of people to want to be an engineer. Today many of our UK projects are ‘component’ technologies (interesting to the converted and I’m not knocking them) – which it is less easy to get excited about as taking society forward. This has a big cultural effect beyond pay rates etc.

    Finally – on the age thing – one of the good things about later retirement maybe that young people (trained in the S&Maths foundations at school) actually are able to start on their career proper later on (as in Germany).?

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  • Engineering firms complain about skill shortages, yet they will not take a chance on newcomers. Time and again, I see engineering jobs which states they will only take on someone with the correct type of experience.

    How are newcomers supposed to get into engineering when no-one is prepared to give them the chance to gain the experience they need?

    Please can some of these engineering firms explain this, as I am utterly fed up with people passing me over for jobs in favour of the guy with the right experience (usually 3D CAD software)

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  • I wouldn't normally post, but somebody has to stop nodding, and provide a voice of dissension when Westminster and the media push a line that doesn’t tally with experience in the workplace. This week’s engineering focus in the news has driven me to distraction.

    Your column, and the Perkins report, just don't match what I or the engineers I talk to see happening in this country. I fear that by publicly bemoaning the number of engineers coming out of the pipeline in the UK, the engineering community is just giving easy soundbites to MP's; it's hard to see how they can get BAD press from saying "The UK would be better with more engineering industry" and "we want British kids in British engineering jobs".

    But I feel it’s pretty irresponsible, because we’re encouraging people to train for a sector that is at best fickle, in a country where government will simply not support them through their career.

    The main reasons that people don't become engineers is not because engineering isn't of interest to them. It's that while the level of qualification required is exceptionally high (akin to training for the law or to be a GP), the financial rewards are more comparable to those available from careers requiring a 3 year BA degree (let's not forget there's a cost involved in each year of University attendance these days). But most importantly of all, our industry is appallingly unstable when compared with the alternatives.

    This week has been a clear case in point: 4th November - Perkins Report issued, bemoaning the lack of new recruits to engineering; 5th November – BAESystems announce that Portsmouth ship building will be stopped. Government does nothing.

    Degrees are seen as a minimum requirement in many industries now post-New Labour. The effect of this is that most of the stand out candidates for a minimal number of graduate placements at my company are now PhD qualified. You really think that kids with a 4 year MEng and a 3 year PhD aren't good enough to be City quants, lawyers or doctors? And where do you think the other engineering graduates go when they are beaten to the few available positions by the PhD grads? They go to work as quants in The City.

    I would also suggest that we stop comparing to the "National Average Wage". I have a lot of respect for bin men and the vital job they do to allow society to function, but I can assure you that none of them needed a high-difficulty technical degree to get their job, so let's compare apples with apples. If we want engineering to be considered as a professional career, then get real and compare salaries against careers that require at least a similar commitment to up-front training of comparable academic rigour.

    The nub of the issue is this; our industry is competing for THE SAME YOUNGSTERS as other professional sectors. These people are good enough to work in whichever sector they please, and they are not stupid. For the last 12 years I've been working in a supposedly wealthy, "halo" industrial sector, that is regularly held up at Westminster press events as a paragon of British engineering industry. I've been threatened with redundancy 4 times and made redundant once, requiring me to pay myself through a postgrad degree to reskill because I couldn't find a suitable role in any sector. I’m one of the ones who has supposedly “made it” (many of my peers did not), but I would never recommend to a kid with the academic qualifications I needed for entry to my MEng degree that entering engineering was a good career move. Show me a GP that can say they’ve had the same employment concerns over the past decade. And then tell me that I should be encouraging my daughter to be an engineer. Maybe in Germany....

    Quality of education, or when we start teaching engineering-specific subjects are red herrings. When people want to be engineers, we do a reasonable job of training them in the UK.

    The problem is that the clever kids can see straight through the fallacy that the politicians (and, apparently, the engineering industry media) put forward, that engineering is a stable, well paid, "professional" career in the UK.

    If you want to get kids to aspire to become engineers, put policies in place that make the UK the most attractive Western nation in which to do engineering business. Support major British manufacturers. And set up economic policies that make setting up a small manufacturing company at least as viable as setting up a high street cafe.

    This needs to be the start point, because until it happens, there won’t be any Rover or Reynard engineers willing to tell young kids that they should choose engineering over dentistry.

    And let’s stop this introverted, irrelevant debate. Stop trying to make the tail wag the dog.

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  • Engineering is not an average occupation. It is highly skilled and requires a degree and a lot of training in most instances. It is comparable with degrees such as accountancy, law, medicine, finance etc. Drawing a comparison at graduate to salary level is not realistic either. Other professions will earn far more. This really hampers engineering severely. It results in people not entering the profession and seeking alternative better paying roles in other sectors. It also drives them abroad, often to the UAE (and surrounding areas), Germany/Europe, USA, Australia etc. Address this issue and engineers will be back in their droves. The engineering companies will get their pick of the best who would have otherwise have picked another career path.

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