The skills shortage paradox

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EngineeringUK Report 2014 - .PDF file.

With a skills gap apparently looming in engineering, why are engineering graduates are more likely to be unemployed and why are youth apprenticeships declining?

It’s the inevitable question raised every time there has been an announcement on the engineering “skills shortage” in the last few years. If the job market for young people is so difficult, why is engineering struggling to attract more much-needed new talent?

But the latest state-of-the-nation report from EngineeringUK highlights some even more intriguing – and worrying – paradoxes within this problem. Despite a major government drive, the number of young people taking advanced level engineering apprenticeships is falling and the overall number of apprentices is almost flat.

Upskilling existing employees is on the increase
There is an increasing trend to upskill exiting employees, hence a rise in over-25 apprentices

Similarly the number of new engineering undergraduate students, despite a big rise in the last five years, has stagnated and even fallen more recently. And recent engineering graduates are actually slightly more likely to be unemployed than their peers.

These are difficult questions and though it’s easy to come up with potential answers – lack of engineering awareness, non-competitive salaries, an education system that forces students to narrow their options too early – there isn’t strong evidence that any one of these clearly illustrates what’s going on.

Certainly the difficulty young people seem to have in getting a job or apprenticeship points the finger at engineering companies, most of whom claim they find it hard to recruit experienced talent but could also be accused of not doing enough to train new engineers.

Paul Jackson
Paul Jackson, addressing MPs at the recent Big Bang at Parliament

The National Apprenticeship Service (which advertises 80 per cent of available placements on its website) says engineering and technology apprenticeships receive 14 applications for every place, suggesting the demand is there but the supply is not. Meanwhile, the number of over-25s taking apprenticeships is on the rise, which could mean companies are choosing to train up existing staff rather than take a risk on young people.

EngineeringUK’s chief executive, Paul Jackson, says the picture is more complicated than the data implies but offers some straightforward suggestions as to what might be happening.

‘If you were to advertise an admin position online you would get 100 applications in no time at all,’ he says. ‘So actually, 14 applications from something that’s not pre-qualified is not a good number. That system is not working.’ This certainly chimes with anecdotes from smaller, less well-known engineering firms that they struggle to get any applications while the well-known companies suck up all the talent. Jackson says this has even affected big international firms in less glamorous areas such as food manufacturing.

Part of the issue, he says, is that securing apprenticeships is a more difficult process than applying to university. ‘We do make it quite difficult for young people [to apply for apprenticeships]. If you’re on a graduate route you’ll get careers advice about which universities to apply for, support in your subjects, and then you have a nice system from UCAS where you put own five choices and they sort it out for you.’ By contrast, students must identify and apply for each apprenticeship separately and, anecdotal evidence suggests, they can often receive little guidance or encouragement in doing so.

So what about those who follow the university route? Why are 8.6 per cent of engineering graduates unemployed compared to 7.1 per cent overall if there’s such a skills shortage? Again, the issue isn’t as simple as it seems. Unemployment might be above average but so is full-time employment, meaning fewer engineering graduates are accepting part-time jobs or combining work with further study.

The explanation, Jackson says, may be that engineering grads are more likely to have a set idea about their career (hence their more vocational degree course) and therefore hold out longer for a particular job rather than applying for a wider range of roles.

”Young people make an application based on really very limited information each time, and hence we have got these shortages

Paul Jackson

‘If you’re willing to take a civil service job or accountancy – one of those jobs that you can take any degree and go into – we think if you’ve taken a history or classics degree, there’s that much broader group available to you. If you’ve taken a degree in mechanical engineering you probably want to get a mechanical engineering job. So we think some of the delay in employment is that people are looking for something really quite specific.’

Apprentices at Sheffield Forgemasters: the lucky few?

There’s also something of a mismatch within engineering, he adds. Electronic engineers, for example, are in particular short supply. ‘This is an imperfect market. Young people make an application based on really very limited information each time, and hence we have got these shortages.’

Jackson’s solution, as is so often mooted when it comes to the engineering skills issue, is a better careers support network, although not necessarily a return to the old-style advice service, that does more to put schools and students in touch with industry. He also says we need to ensure that recent additional government investment in higher and further education in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) education is wisely used to increase capacity. Applying industrial strategy to the whole of government and not just the business department could also help.

”There is an element of truth, at each stage of the recruitment of engineers, that the ideal is to recruit someone to slot in. The reality is we all know you’ve got to do some work

But what about the role of the engineering companies? Don’t they need to take more responsibility for training young people rather than expecting employees to arrive fully formed? ‘There is an element of truth, at each stage of the recruitment of engineers, that the ideal is to recruit someone to slot in. The reality is we all know you’ve got to do some work. So when I hear companies say they want someone who can instantly be 100% productive, I’m sceptical about that.’

On the other hand it can be financially difficult and risky for small firms in particular to take on apprentices. ‘Smaller companies can’t afford not to take part in training, but what it may be is that the whole apprenticeship is difficult to deliver,’ says Jackson. ‘Maybe they could contribute to overtraining of engineers without having every person on their premises for three years.’

EngineeringUK is calling for a doubling of the number of under-19 apprentices, graduates and GCSE physics students by the end of the decade. Jackson says he is cautiously optimistic about the targets. ‘The foundations have been laid. We’ve now got to accelerate.’