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The week ahead: should immigration fill the skills gap?

From engaging with young people to improving gender diversity there are many measures that the engineering industry is taking to address its much-publicised skills problem.

But whilst  few would disagree that industry needs to look to the future, the skills shortage is already starting to bite in many sectors, and many believe that a more immediate solution is also required.

This Thursday, the Royal Academy of Engineering is hosting a conference that will examine what’s arguably one of the more controversial solutions to this pressing problem: importing skills from overseas.

The event - The brain gain: should we be importing top quality STEM skills from Abroad? - will bring together representatives from industry, professional bodies, education, academia, and think tanks to discuss whether the increasing need for high quality skills in STEM sectors should be met by importing skills from abroad into the UK.

The debate coincides with the findings of a survey undertaken by Festo Training and Consulting that also throws light on industry’s skills worries.

Three quarters of respondents to the firm’s 2013 People and Productivity Survey, said that their business was suffering from a skills shortage, and that middle managers are increasingly having to step in to address technical problems.

Festo claims that the report indicates a growing requirement for appropriate on-the-job training and development.  ‘The pressure is on for companies to develop their existing talent pipeline, because the majority of employees within engineering and manufacturing are between the ages of 40 and 50,’ said a company spokesperson. ‘As the capable workforce narrows, it will be this age group, typically in middle management, who will bear the most stress.’

Elsewhere this week, the awards season is now well and truly underway. On Tuesday night , ahead of its annual NI Days UK user conference, National Instruments will announce the winners of its Graphical System Design achievement awards, while on Wednesday the IET’s Innovation Awards will celebrate inspiring examples of engineering from across all of the key sectors. We’d like to wish the best of luck to all of those who have made the shortlists for these prestigious events.


Readers' comments (48)

  • To start with we could employ some of the graduate Engineers that are at present collecting Benefit. This applies to actual graduate engineers NOT those with Art degrees!!!!! And yes there are quite a few awaiting the call. Check with the Job centers & McDonalds for the statistics.

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  • I personally love how the British lay person feels that immigrants are coming over here to take British jobs and that the UK should leave the EU. When in reality immigration is the only way Britain can fill the skills shortage in the a short space of time.
    STEM education is all well and good, but it is likely to be 20+ years before a real return from such an investment can be realised.

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  • NO! An emphatic NO!

    We should be investing in our own, home-grown talent. For too long successive administrations have played around with our education system, causing reduced standards and demoralised teachers and lecturers.

    Organise it properly, put university education and vocational apprenticeships at the top of the agenda, and stop politicians fiddling about with the system - see Michael Gove as a prime example.

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  • Simple supply and demand, pay a better wage and you will attract more people.

    Why would a young person want to become an engineer when other careers other better salaries and career prospects.

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  • NO! Our country is overcrowded already, and we have a huge number of unemployed youngsters who could fill the gap, with a little bit of support and encouragement. For goodness sake, look at home first!

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  • For our company, recruiting from abroad has become essential. Of the junior engineers recruited in the last few years, two were French, four Italian, one Malaysian, one Indian, and only two were Brits. Also, the best quality recruits were from the Continent.

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  • Here are the obvious questions to those firms that say they must hire from abroad because they can't find suitably skilled engineers in the UK: Are you training apprentices/graduates so that you don't have this problem in the future? Or is the problem that junior foreign candidates are better educated and British ones insufficiently so? Would you just rather we had a completely open international labour market so you can pick the best from around the world without having to worry about employing UK engineers?

  • Widespread investment in apprenticeship schemes in this country is the answer to these problems and encouraging and forcing firms to invest in apprenticeship training as a natural basis for renewing their employees.

    Too much emphasis has been placed in recent years on employing eastern Europeans in the age bracket 27-37 years old.

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  • British companies suffer from (a) an unwillingness to train staff, and (b) an over-reliance on 3rd party recruitment. There are plenty of candidates, but companies fantasise that they will be able to find someone that matches their requirements in all ways without the need develop staff. The majority of recruitment agencies do not understand employers' requirements, but nor do they take the time to understand the candidates. This near-random process does not satisfy candidates or employers.

    Bringing in foreign workers with lower pay expectations does nothing to solve the structural problem of a recruitment market that doesn't work.

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  • We have the same issue here in the United States but it is all propaganda, all about replacing American workers with cheap foreign labor. I suspect those in the UK has similar issues.

    AND here's the mantra:

    "The goal is NOT to Find an American worker!"

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  • I agree with Paul Whitney, I am in that situation right now.

    Few employers are willing to take on graduates, many adverts are seeking for a "graduate" or "entry" engineer, then go on to demand a minimum of 2 years of relevant experience. Recruitment processes are known to drag on for months and months with requirements repeatedly being revised down.

    Meanwhile many students see graduate schemes as the only option, these often lead to good jobs, but they mean a year or more spent in limbo being shuffled around multiple departments all struggling to find work to keep them busy with. Sometimes graduates on such schemes are eventually shoehorned into roles less relevant to their degree, particularly for students specialised in more niche areas.

    Employers need to be more willing to recruit directly from universities and to offer a bespoke training process for every new employee. They should not be complaining about the lack of skills when they have the means to create people with the exact skills they are demanding.

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  • I left the UK over 30 years ago to emigrate to Canada where (some of) my skills and education were required, unlike in the UK.

    I am now 68, employed full time, and am constantly receiving job offers for the UK and Europe. Why would I want to come back to an overcrowded, old fashioned country that treats engineers as glorified mechanics. At least in N.America, engineers are classed as professionals and are licensed as such. Why is the UK so far out of touch?

    Try treating the home grown talent as an asset and not a short term liability and you might find a resurgence in interest.

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  • No certainly not! this is simply a short term fix, we must take the long view and train our own young people to fill these new exciting jobs. Apprenticeships are the answer with government assistance to train the skilled workforce needed in the future.

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  • British engineering companies should pay the proper rate for qualified chartered engineers and then the thousands working in Europe may well come back. For far too long British engineering companies have treated engineers badly. The real skill shortage in the UK are good managers capable of realising what good assets engineers are and treat them accordingly.

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  • No - Whilst it is a good idea to employ the younger graduates there is also a huge pool of talent at the other end of the age spectrum. How about employing all the unemployed engineers over 50 who now have to work until they are 66 before they can retire. I personally know a lot a talented engineers who can not get work who are over 50.

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  • Years ago British companies were proud to invest and train their own engineers, at various levels. Now it is all short term, hire NOW for the JOB in hand and fire later. Only those companies which can show they are playing their part in training should have access to any Government funded or nationally placed public contracts. ie a condition precedent in getting such contracts.

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  • I must confirm that I was/am one of those young Engineers (at least in 1967!) who was invited (it was said then that young staff in ICI who made waves were sent to the Colonies!) to spend time with an ICI associate in the USA. I did return to my own country a few years later, bringing [I imagine at least some of what I had learned there would be of use] my skills to benefit my own nation. I can honestly say that I have used only about 15% of my subsequent time actually furthering my profession and my UK clients. The balance assisting overseas companies, overseas and as necessary dealing with the antics of the 'shams' within my own Nation who have held and intend to remain holding pivotal power over Engineers and indeed society as a whole.
    I have brought over £1,000,000 in fees into the UK plc: but what is the point training UK based Engineers to be the best if the clerks presently in charge ignore, disregard, positively disrupt our efforts and skills.

    Those who create no wealth have to constantly think of silly reasons and routes for them to be paid and supported by the rest of us, and particularly Engineers, who do.

    The conflict groups -I have previously defined such- have got away with such for well over 500 years: but I live in hopes that their days in charge are numbered.
    Mike B

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  • One under recognised aspect of the so called skills shortage it that it is often the same companies which now complain about a lack of skilled recruits are the same one 10 or 15 years back (during ‘outsourcing mania’) who decided to reduce their salaried engineering staff and then re-employ them on a contract basis. Although this often suited the employers and many of the newly independent contractors, it severely eroded the link between the responsibility of the employment organisation to train from school to retirement. This is one thing that the government or universities cannot be blamed for and will, as has been mentioned by others, will take ages to repair.

    For IT this arrangement may work- as self training is possible, even for the young (you only need a computer and a web connection). For engineering even the most self motivated engineer will find it difficult and expensive to self-train, especially as so much of the work of an engineer involves learning how to effectively work in teams.

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  • My personal opinion is an emphatic 'No'. I say this because, my first hand experience is that many qualified (all ages) have decided to leave the UK due to low wages, an actual decrease in living standards due to little or no salary increases in the last 5-10 years, and better prospects overseas! If the companies in the UK appreciated what they already had, and currently have, then the Engineering brain drain would never have happened. Of course, the good old cherry they throw at you is the economic downturn, so 'Sorry folks, no increases this year'. When this country gets its own house in order, there will not be a need for immigrants to fill any gaps. I come from a family of engineers and can honestly say qualified graduate engineers are much better respected abroad and unless things change pretty soon in the UK I'm sure we will not be staying much longer either! Give us the salary we deserve, plus the respect, and I'm sure that home grown engineers will be glad to support the UK.

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  • In 1982 Margaret Thatcher told the so called "Captains of Industry", (who's collective name was Smith), that "We don't need Apprentices" so they all went ahead and effectively "Killed Off" the Apprenticing System! Today we Reap the Rewards in the Shape of Massive Skill Shortages in almost Every Sector.

    We Need Now, and have done for Over 20 Years, Imported Skills from Europe and Further afield to make up the Shortfall.

    There is no Quick Fix for this it will take decades to correct the damage inflicted by one woman on an entire nation!

    Immigrant Labour is the only way we can Bridge the Gap in the Short Term.

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  • Employers who recruit from abroad should pay a heavy tax levy.

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