Crisis predicted within 10 years as demographic ‘timebomb’ threatens

Britain is set to lose nearly one third of its engineers over the next decade because of the profession’s ageing population profile and a continuing failure to attract young people.

Britain is set to lose nearly one third of its engineers over the next decade because of the profession’s ageing population profile and a continuing failure to attract young people, a government-backed report will reveal next month.

The shortage is the result of a demographic ‘timebomb’. Around 100,000 engineers are now in their fifties and approaching retirement, and the flow of new engineers entering the profession is slowing to a trickle. The figures will be highlighted in a report due out in December, which forms part of the government’s Foresight Initiative.

Professor John Wood, a senior academic at Nottingham University and chairman of the Foresight Panel on Materials which produced the report, said the figures underlined the severity of a skills problem that is threatening the technology base of Britain.

Wood called on the government for urgent action to address the problem. ‘This needs big money, coupled with doing something about the education system — and especially physics teaching,’ he said.

The demographics show a bulge in the number of engineers in their early fifties, coupled with a continuing 10% annual drop in the number of new engineers joining the profession over the last four to five years. ‘The result will be a 50% drop in the number of engineers coming into industry,’ Wood said.

The risks appear greatest for small and medium-sized comp-anies, which could find it more difficult to attract the talent needed to face up to increasingly tough technological demands from major customers. ‘If your customer wants you to adapt to its supply chain model, you’ll need good engineers to make this happen. If you’re a second- or third-tier supplier and you haven’t the skill to do this, then the writing’s on the wall for you,’ Wood warned.

Figures from the Engineering Council show that of the biggest and most highly-qualified group, the 150,000 chartered engineers of working age today, some 73,000 are over 50, while only 28,000 are under 40. In 2010, assuming some early retirements, the total number of chartered engineers could stand at around 95,000.

If current levels of new engineers joining the profession do not increase significantly, the population of such engineers could fall as low as 50,000 — one third of its current level — by 2020.