Frontline views

A survey of engineers commissioned by The Engineer reveals how the UK profession judges its readiness to face the future. Berenice Baker reports.

A new report into the concerns and aspirations of UK engineers provides some valuable insights into the state of the profession. The poll of 1,323 engineers, including 287 managers, carried out for The Engineer by market researcher YouGov, paints a picture of a workforce with some serious concerns about the future.

Despite anecdotal evidence that the current financial crisis may be boosting the appeal of a career in engineering, our survey reveals fears that the current shortage of skilled engineers is expected to worsen in the years to come.

Perhaps more shockingly, more than half of our managers, who feel let down by both the government and the higher education system, believe that the graduates they are getting are not sufficiently equipped to embark on a career in the industry.

Job satisfaction

But it is not all doom and gloom. The majority of our respondents are happy in their careers. They feel valued, regard themselves as relatively well paid, enjoy what they are doing for a living and, despite the opportunities in the world’s emerging economies, remain largely committed to the UK’s rich and varied culture of innovation.

A total of 72 per cent say they get job satisfaction and only 10 per cent disagree. Most agree that engineering jobs are well rewarded in terms of salary and benefits, and that careers bring both status and internal recognition.

It is perhaps an obvious point, but as the financial services industry supported by nothing more substantial than confidence collapses, the key allure of the engineering professions is that it actually makes things.

Expanding on this notion, Richard Thorburn, a graduate systems engineer with Thales, said: ‘I enjoy working with engineers and together we produce a tangible product at the end of a project. This is personally rewarding — for example when people start using their mobile telephones and the internet on aircraft, I will be able to say that I was part of the team that made that possible.’

And while engineers do not expect the big-figure salaries of the city, the survey suggests that the thrill of making something is matched by reasonably rewarding salaries

‘In general, people don’t go into engineering to get rich,’ said Colin Woolford, resourcing manager at engineering recruitment firm Beechwood. ‘But the salaries in traditional engineering — such as steel, the nuclear industry and power generation — are all buoyant and very competitive compared with other professional careers. Engineering can still offer very stable and financially rewarding careers.’

Managers’ view of degrees

Despite the lure of a rewarding and well-respected career, the majority of managers in our survey said they are struggling to recruit enough graduates of sufficient calibre.

Andrew Smith, education and skills policy adviser from the Engineering Employers Federation (EEF) agreed that these findings are worrying, and said the government and higher education system have a joint responsibility to address them.

‘EEF has been calling for improvements to careers education so that more young people understand the opportunities open to them if they choose to study engineering,’ he said.

‘The findings on engineering graduates are similar to a recent EEF survey, which showed that while employers were happy with the technical knowledge of engineering graduates, many were concerned about their lack of commercial awareness and their hands-on experience of industry.

‘This meant that many SMEs without the resources to run graduate training programmes found it difficult to employ new graduates. EEF believes that more needs to be done by government and the higher education sector to promote schemes such as sandwich courses and work placements for students.’

In the academic corner, Dr Kenji Takeda, a senior lecturer in aeronautics at Southampton University, said universities are trying to address this, but cannot be all things to all people. ‘I can see where the figures for graduates being under-equipped comes from,’ he said. ‘Universities try to supplement academic content with those other skills that businesses say graduates lack, but everyone’s different — some people are thinkers, others are less academically clever but very good at leading a team.’

In contrast to the perceptions in the workplace, Takeda is broadly optimistic about the state of engineering in our universities. ‘We’re seeing a steady growth in applicants, which may be due to the fact the courses are so vocational and in growth areas such as our aeronautics and astronautics courses. The whole space industry is growing, with commercial space travel and satellite communications. Space is very exciting.’

Many graduates are apparently unaware of the opportunities that await them in the UK space sector, an industry that contributes £7bn annually to the economy.

Patrick Woods, chief technical officer at Astrium satellites, said that while the company has no problem recruiting engineers with a lifelong love of space science, it has a trickier job finding those with more traditional engineering skills.

Engineering in the UK

While the findings of our poll were divided on whether the UK is, and will continue to be, a good place for innovators, the response to specific issues facing the UK engineering sector was forthright.

While more than two thirds of those surveyed claimed that a skills shortage is one of the biggest problems facing the UK engineering sector, Frances Wilson, manager of international research, Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), suggested that the current climate could trigger a renaissance in engineering as a career. ‘Given the current climate, there are going to be huge cutbacks in recruitment for the financial sector. Fewer jobs with a competitive salary could mean engineers stay in their chosen field,’ she said.

International opportunities

The much-publicised skills shortage is not just a UK problem. Some of the world’s fastest-developing economies are crying out for skilled engineers. For the adventurous UK engineer there is money to be made in countries such as China and India. Indeed, 35 per cent of respondents said that if they were searching for a new job they would consider working in an emerging economy.

But despite the lure of overseas, most engineers in the survey reported a desire to remain in the UK. Of those that would like an overseas role, the majority would ideally like to continue working for a UK company.

Southampton’s Takeda said he did not see competition from emerging economies as a threat. ‘Design engineering drives the knowledge economy. Manufacturing may be done overseas, but the design is done here,’ he said.

While Thales’ Thorburn added: ‘UK engineering seems to be moving its focus to systems integration and prime contracting, managing a large global network of subcontractors to deliver large and very complex systems.

Skills levels

Unsurprisingly, 80 per cent of respondents believe they have the skills to help their organisation remain competitive although, surprisingly, eight per cent say they cannot do their jobs properly.

The managers’ view is rather different. While three quarters of the managers we spoke to believe their workforce now has the skills required to meet the challenges facing their organisation, this level of confidence drops off as they look to the future.

Just 41 per cent agree that by 2018 skills levels will still be adequate. ‘It’s quite a confused picture because applications to study engineering at university have gone up recently, but not enough to fill the predicted huge gaps in such a relative short amount of time,’ said CIPD’s Wilson.

It is also a fairly damning indictment of the mechanisms in place to keep engineering skills at current levels. While just over two thirds of our managers thought the private sector was doing a decent job at training, there are serious perceived failings elsewhere.

For instance, while only 39 per cent thought the education system was doing a good job, government policy and initiatives such as the Manufacturing Advisory Service (MAS), the Sector Skills Council for Science, Engineering and Manufacturing Technologies in the UK (Semta) and Knowledge Transfer Partnerships (KTPs) were widely considered to be having even less impact.

David Wright, MAS West Midland chief executive, expressed surprise at our findings. He said: ‘Based on my experience, I would strongly disagree with the figure of 44 per cent saying they do not get the support they need,’ he said. ‘Across a region, we are achieving 20 per cent penetration levels of our customer base over six years, and even companies that haven’t used us are aware of what we can provide.

‘In our own surveys, over 90 per cent of our customers agree that we helped, and 80 per cent of the companies that haven’t used us are aware we provide a worthwhile service. When we surveyed our clients, we found they all ticked the satisfied or very satisfied boxes.

‘SMEs are going through a tough time — they don’t need sympathy, they need empathy. The skill of our advisers is to nurture skills within the team and recommend ways ahead, which could include referrals to appropriate KTPs.’

But EEF’s Smith disagreed: ‘Despite the emphasis that the government has put on addressing the UK’s skill needs, it is clear that engineers don’t believe the education sector is meeting the needs of our sector.’ he said.

‘The Leitch review (The Leitch Review of Skills, Prosperity for all in the global economy — world-class skills, published on 5 December 2006) called for a training and education system which is responsive to business needs, but companies are still finding it difficult to find provision which meets their requirements. EEF has been pressing for government action to make the skills infrastructure easier for companies to navigate through.’

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