Comment: Covid-19 and the impact on the engineering industry

Engineering UK chief executive Dr Hilary Leevers reflects on the impact of the pandemic on the engineering sector and the increasing urgency to create opportunities for under-represented groups

The coronavirus pandemic has resulted in great change for employers across the UK, including those in engineering, some of which have transformed their work to directly mitigate the harm caused by the pandemic. All have had to move fast to keep up with the rapidly changing context - from having to adapt to changing market needs, to moving entire workplaces to remote working or pausing production. We, at EngineeringUK, are trying to capture and share these changes to help inform policy and practice in support of engineering.

For more than 20 years, EngineeringUK, (or the Engineering & Technology Board) has published a comprehensive report on the state of engineering in the UK – covering educational routes into engineering, as well as key statistics and case studies describing the sector and its workforce. This year, we are breaking up the publication into a range of formats and will provide more regularly updated information responding to sectoral needs. As part of this effort, our new, interactive Engineering Insights dashboards have been published with their initial content tracking the economic implications of the pandemic on engineering over time, drawing on statistics from the Office for National Statistics Business Impacts of Covid Survey and the Index of Production.

These tables show that at the height of lockdown, 24% of businesses had paused or temporarily stopped trading. Whilst lockdown is easing in some areas, many workers and employers in the engineering industry have been negatively affected. For example, in April, 45% of businesses in construction saw at least a halving of their turnover with almost half of their staff furloughed in May. ICT, transportation and storage were less affected.

Overall, about a fifth of companies normally exporting and importing ceased to do so, meaning that many have had to change suppliers or find alternative solutions to their import needs – this was especially true of manufacturing, construction and the water industry.

Across the main production industries, gross value added fell an average of 24% over the year to April, with water supply, sewerage and waste management least affected and manufacturing particularly hard hit. Within manufacturing, pharmaceutical products were the only area of growth, with transport equipment and textiles struggling most.

Alongside these sectoral analyses, we are also publishing a more traditional style report on Educational Pathways into Engineering. Written before the pandemic took hold, the report nonetheless highlights some fundamental issues that will only become more pronounced. On a positive note some progress has been made. For example, there has been increased take-up of some GCSE and A level subjects that can lead into engineering, such as in biology, chemistry, physics, and computer science. Reform to technical education has also centred on enabling students to be more prepared for the world of work. However, entries into some important subject choices have declined (e.g. entries into Design and Technology GCSE have fallen since the previous academic year, as have entries in maths and further maths at A level). But, there is also an acute shortage of STEM subject teachers in secondary and further education, with almost three quarters of FE college principals ranking engineering as the most difficult subject to recruit qualified staff for.

The pandemic has accentuated the need to publish information and insights quickly to reflect the evolving environment and help inform policy and action

There will be increasing urgency to create more opportunities for under-represented groups in engineering. This includes those from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds whose challenges are likely to be accentuated by the closure of schools. The use of predicted grades is likely to negatively affect certain groups of young people, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds and students from ethnic minority backgrounds given systemic biases that exist. For example, black pupils are 2.5 times more likely to be misallocated to a lower set in maths than white pupils.

In the coming weeks, we’ll supplement our Pathways report with insights from a pulse survey examining how young people’s careers drivers and aspirations have changed in response to the pandemic.

The pandemic has accentuated the need to publish information and insights quickly to reflect the evolving environment and help inform policy and action. Our Engineering Insights content will expand over time to cover a wider range of topics and we hope that they provide an interesting and insightful read - we welcome your feedback on what data and analyses you would find useful in the future.

Finally, I want to end on a high note – returning to how engineers are helping mitigate the harm of the pandemic. Earlier in July, we hosted our first live Big Bang Digital event for young people, where they could hear and ask about the STEM response to coronavirus. All the sessions are still available to watch and cover topics a range of topics such as BAE Systems and Rolls-Royce’s collaboration to 3D print PPE; how Network Rail have kept the trains running and Thames Water, the water flowing; and how some of our Big Bang Competition alumni are playing their part. I hope you have time to take a look and please do share it on.

Dr Hilary Leevers is the CEO of EngineeringUK