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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)

  • No, currently I and many others know of many suitably qualified engineers who are unemployed, and some for long periods.

    What skills gap? my main issue is where are these alleged jobs and with so many unemployed engineers, no skills gap.

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  • A lot of big Engineering companies in the UK have lost a lot of very experienced people over the last 15 years or more. We now are struggling to find enough people with the hands on experience to keep plants running at reliable levels. I have seen an influx in Engineers who have come from University with very little relevant hands on experience. This was fine when you had enough people around you who knew the job inside out and were prepared to help you.If you have the right team around you they can help carry you through until you learn your job. A lot of these bright young Engineers though are being put in charge of jobs and people without the necessary knowledge & support to succeed at a high level. They are expected to work miracles with poor staff & little investment. These young Engineers should have been put on the shop floor with experienced people for a few years then put with Experienced Engineers so they could be taught all they need to know before taking on all the pressure and responsibility an Engineer has to put up with. We have let these young people down and paying the price through people job hopping to get away from one mess to another. Companies knew years ago about the up and coming shortages of skilled personnel but some failed to act early enough. Its one thing having the will , its another thing having the skill. You need both i think and you cant train someone up overnight. But give it a few years and these inexperienced Engineers will become experienced. Just hope they stay in the same jobs long enough to reap the reward of their struggles. Good luck and stay safe.

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  • No, the problem is not that there are not enough British Engineers in the world, the problem is that there are not enough in the UK. The principle reason for this is that the UK doesn't pay well enough and is trying to suppress wages. Instead of seeking the bottom of the world engineering salary ranges , and delivering second rate products, the UK should try being globally competitive for the best British talent , and building high standard products in the UK. It's a sad fact but there are thousands of British engineers working in emerging economies helping them to compete with the U.K., and all of those Engineers are being paid a lot more than they would in the UK.

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  • Being at the hard end of job hunting all employers want ready made people to fill roles. There is no willingness to train people who may given some time and effort more than suitable to fill the vacant roles.

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  • Education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics needs to be strengthened in the U.S. . Our colleges and universities are not graduating enough students with strong science degrees, computer science or otherwise. Graduates with the right kinds of backgrounds for data scientist – computer science, statistics, machine learning – are coming out of the universities, but they are not coming out in sufficient numbers. As a result, firms are struggling to hire full-time or contract staff for IT and engineering positions. In working with IT staffing agencies, I know it's important to know their true professional goals. Help them achieve their growth goals and help them establish a career growth path.
    Than Nguyen

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  • There is no skills gap in engineering. There is a misunderstanding in HR. HR needs to understand that engineers can do anything. An engineer trained in metals and machines can work with metals and machines, no matter how they look like and what brand they are. Electrical and electronics engineers can work with anything electronic.
    And if there are gaps, as always, then engineers can read, study and ask colleagues.
    And if there are still gaps, companies should start cooperating with universities, and finance research papers for students.

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  • The skills shortage is in management, not engineering.

    With proper management and human resources development, there would be no skills gap.

    So, replace the management with people who can coach their staff.

    If the managers take care of their engineers, the engineers will take care of the customers, and the customers will support the company.
    The moment you start making the engineers working for the managers, you lost.

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  • Martyn Davis is right. Have you ever tried selling technical training in this country? Even the best companies have been very reluctant to spend any money at all. Sure they are coming on board now but it is 30 years since we decided training was too expensive and a luxury. I get the impression they are only coming on board now because of the positive publicity it gets them!
    You also need prosperous companies capable of employing people to be the providers and many have disappeared. The government could encourage or force companies to make training compulsory and donate the unemployed benefits saved to the training schemes.

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  • This article links with the John Elliot article currently running. Elliot wants more manufactured goods that are being bought in the UK to carry a Made In Britain label. But how many workers who will work in making those goods have the same label on them?

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  • I finished my apprenticeship in machine tool building over 50 years ago. I still do consultancy work for 2 German companies.
    My apprentice was completely in house and with an American company. The company had about 100 apprentices.
    Work and training was based on a piecework system, which gave that the training officer a real-time analysis of competence of each apprentice.
    Day release to college was the norm, as was night school, plus a working week was 44 hours, with Saturday morning work towards the end of my apprenticeship.
    Training included fixture design, machine design, service work and time-study.
    The main point I want to make is this was done without a layer of facilitating companies pushing apprenticeships and I think more of the Government money should be going direct into companies.
    I have watched our country allow motorcycles, cars and machine tool building to slip away into history and NOW is the time to revive it. In addition we need to revive a good work ethic.
    I was at he Skills Show in Birmingham, 16 Nov, on the Princes Trust stand and saw plenty of eager school children keen enough to pick-up the engineering and manufacturing.

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  • As is often the case I think answer lies somewhere in the middle. Of-course we should be trying more and more to produce our own talent, but this will take time and renewed effort. We also still need to overcome an embedded national problem, that of engineering as too hard or too grubby. In the meantime, what is wrong with bringing in talent from overseas? It may inject some new ideas as well. Let's face it, how many British born and educated engineers go abroad to work, why not the other way round?

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  • The sector can't have a free lunch, as an undergraduate second year engineer at a top ten university, the problem is clear; 40% of my cohort will leave engineering behind after their degree's. Why?

    Maybe 10% will get bored of engineering but for the majority of the 30% it comes down to pay. To get the top skills the sector has to pay top dollar. My friends who have similar skill sets (working with numbers, problem solving ect.) studying economics and finance based subjects expect to be starting on around £35k; while £28k is pretty much top for my engineering field (mechanical).

    You can only expect the problem to get worse, wait for 2016 when my year paying £9k/year for university graduate. Can I afford to sacrifice at least £7k a year? With an even larger gap with time; when my degree will leave me £50k in debt at least (assuming the current 6% interest rate on student debt remains). I have a passion for engineering but financially it looks like it will leave me in the dust.

    Also the sector isn't advertising itself to me when there is blatant bias in the hiring process. For example one company's internships, on the list of candidate eligibility and I quote: "Female and/or from a Black or Asian minority ethnic group", no banks I've seen have a statements like this (I also question the legality of positive discrimination before the interview stage).

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  • There is no skills gap. Engineering has high unemploment compared to other sectors. Many graduates do not get jobs in the sector and many people with engineering degrees do not work in the sector. The skills gap is an image painted to flood the sector with labour and drive down their costs. It won't work as it will just force more people away and leave less talented and less skilled people to fill gap as the rest will go elsewhere. It is a race to the bottom. Engineering is severely underpaid in the UK.

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  • The skills gap is generally defined as something that's coming, rather than something which exists now. It's a phenomenon caused by engineers retiring faster than new ones can be trained up.

  • The shortage is always coming. They need not worry, there are a lot of engineers out there hence the large amount of graduates that don't get jobs and the high unemployment. Many choose not to work in engineering even if a job is offered to them. The market needs to correct itself and realise that they are competing against other sectors. I have been surprised to find out that senior engineers/management did not realise people were coming out of university and going straight into other sectors. I think it may be enlightening to find that most students on an engineering degree will think strongly about other sectors before they finish. This is the point they are "turned," as soon as they see the reality of engineering. It is unfortunate but very talented people are being lost because of this. These are the people that will lead the industry in future and generate the vast income that their equivalents abroad do in their much better paying position. Instead the company becomes vulnerable and weak. Only last week I see Marshall in Cambridge are in trouble. The sector is dieing because of a lack of talent and skills, not because they don't exists but because the companies have not invested in them.

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  • Another problem with the engineering sector that has not been mentioned yet, is the attitude in all industries that the only route of promotion and development for senior engineers is to give them managerial responsibilities. It essentially mirrors what other people have said about how many graduates leave the profession entirely but this is happening within the industry itself.

    This is something I have seen rife within all companies I have experience in, and there is plenty of anecdotal evidence elsewhere. The best engineers in organisations are routinely being "rewarded" by promotions to management positions, where they are given little time to apply their expertise and are rarely able to train the younger engineers who replace them.

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  • I just left the UK 2 weeks ago, after working as a highly skilled foreign engineer for 6 years. Reading these comments shows one distinction between UK and Europe: people in the UK don't understand that it's a global labor market that the UK is only a part of. Are you really expecting your government to tell your companies: you are not going to employ that cheap Polish engineer, you are going to take this expensive Brit, and pay him like a Brit! This is going to kill what is left from your industry! Companies compete on the labor market just the same way as they do on the goods market, whether you like it or not. And no government can regulate it, unless you are planning a communistic revolution.

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  • There are a number of problems with importing the labour. Foreign engineers are not useful to most engineering firms because they can't get clearances to work on certain projects, so that isolates the market severely for foreigners that may wish to come to the UK. There is also another major difference in that the UK is considerably more expensive to live in than other countries such as Poland. The qualifications, difficulty and time required to achieve in engineering puts it on a par with other professions such as law, accountancy etc. Many of the skills are shared too. This means the issue is the pay must reflect this. Even if you look into Europe such as Germany, Netherlands etc. they are still dominantly from that country. The flow of engineers from UK may well go there but again Germany etc. have a significant engineering sector that does not require clearances which does mean that is easier. Ultimately bringing in foreign labour is only going to speed up the race to the bottom. It will lead to no engineering sector in the UK. The managers that made the decision to not invest and compete for the best engineers across sectors and countries, will after building their firm on foreign engineers then move it abroad. It is short termism which is not good for the country. Might as well stop training engineering students if we are going to import engineers. It will kill what is left for them wanting to come to the sector and work.

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  • Konrad, They do compete on a labour market which is why the engineers are either not doing engineering or are moving abroad. Salary is seriously lacking compared to other professions and abroad.

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  • This was done in Ireland and the result was to say the least bad.
    The firms who employed the over sea skilled workers paid them less than
    the Irish skilled person and would much prefer not to train people who were looking to work. These company’s paid more in the long run because the so called skilled over sea’s worker was not skilled and could not be trained for a number of reasons No(1) was language all you would get was (no understand) No(2) the basic education was not there to build on. No(3)
    the willingness to improve was not there. No(4) When you hired one they want you to hire 2 then 3 an so on. The result is your work force changes
    to an over sea’s workforce and the skilled people you had get pushed out.
    (get out or else) the next thing over sea’s wok force doe’s is want higher
    Wage’s. So your quality of product start to decline and costs go up. Best option is take your own people off the dole and train them. As for the kids
    From school & collage give them the training and something to work for and you will get the skills you need to grow not decline and stop existing.
    Taking in over sea’s skills doe’s not work

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  • Engineer: What is the role of the government in this situation? Can they make anything better? Engineers are free people, they can come or go, regardless of the passport they are holding. The government did the right thing opening the labour market for the Central/Eastern new EU members, they can only ruin it closing it. Which, by the way is silently happening as we speak...

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