An engineering skills council has warned growing UK industries like nuclear will lack a sufficient amount of technically capable workers to fill jobs in the future without urgent action.

Semta, the sector skills council for science, engineering and manufacturing technologies, has revealed research showing approximately 30,000 skilled engineers need to be added to the UK workforce per year between now and 2016 to fill the gap of highly skilled workers reaching retirement. The new research echoes controversial claims made by Engineering UK (formerly the Engineering Technology Board) in its 2009 annual report that the engineering industry needs to recruit 587,000 skilled workers by 2017.

In contrast, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills expects the UK’s combined skills academies to attract more than 300,000 people to training programmes over the next four years.

Philip Whiteman, chief executive of Semta, said across the spectrum of engineering sectors approximately 30 to 40 per cent of workers are 45 years old and older.

Semta claims a new highly skilled engineering base can be grown from academia and apprenticeship programmes and even recruitment in the current workforce.

While certain ‘mature’ engineering sectors such as the metals industry are likely to shrink over the years due to competition from abroad, Whiteman said, there will be a need for a new generation of engineers to drive innovation in these areas.

He noted the announcement last month that Sheffield Forgemasters secured £80m of government funding to buy and install a 15,000-tonne forging press for developing large steel components for next generation nuclear reactions Read our in depth report on the Sheffield Forgemasters deal here. The capability for this was only previously achieved on the industrial level by Japan Steelworks.

There will also be a growing demand for engineers in industries such as nuclear, electronics and clean technology.

Whiteman said the main challenge for attracting young people to engineering is changing the perception of what an engineering career is like.

‘I think engineer is a word used in the UK to describe lots of different occupations which is a bit misleading because an engineer repairing your fridge or your car would not have the skills necessary to do a job in our aerospace industry,’ he said.

‘What we’re focusing on is high level technical skills. These are the sorts of jobs where you’ve got job security because there is more demand than supply. They’re quite well paid and offer lots of opportunity to travel because most of the industries we service are global.’

As far as recruitment in the current workforce, Whiteman said a key focus will be on ‘re-skilling’ workers.

‘There are quite large numbers in our sector who have no qualifications and they’ve learned on the job,’ he said. ‘They’ve got skills and experience but they actually need to learn new skills and get new experience in order to the meet the highly skilled and more technical job priorities of the future.’

Whiteman said one of the main advantages of an engineering degree is it is applicable across a wide variety of industries; meaning a worker who has lost their job in a mature industry could easily retrain and get a job in a growing sector.

‘The example I use is the nuclear industry,’ he said. ‘You get lots of people asking you about nuclear engineers, most of the engineers that work in the nuclear industry will have the same skill set as people who work in an engineering organisation in a mature engineering company because all they do things to a higher quality because of the plants and the installations, it’s mostly similar activity you’d be doing in a normal engineering works.’

Whiteman said one area he expects the government– whether it is Labour, Conservative or Lib Dem – to give greater attention to is apprenticeship programmes.

‘We need more apprentices because two thirds of the skills shortage we project will be in technical skills, which are best reduced by having more apprentices coming through the system,’ he said. ‘We need the employers to be taking on more apprentices and we need the government of any hue to support apprenticeship activities.’