Situations vacant

In the first of two reports on employment, George Paloczi-Horvath discovers that while jobs are available, engineers are not rushing to take up the offers

Depending on your point of view, the engineering jobs market is either buoyant or depressed. While opportunitites for professional engineers who want to change jobs are the best for many years, employers trying to recruit skilled engineering staff are reporting escalating problems. The skills shortage is close to becoming a structural problem for industry.

The Year of Engineering Success (Yes) campaign said at its launch last month that 30,000 new qualified engineers and `many more technicians’ are needed every year just to replace those retiring or leaving the profession. That figure does not allow for any growth.

But the UK is getting half this number. Given that engineering-based industries account for up to 30% of gross domestic product, Yes believes the shortfall could derail the recovery.

A survey published late last year by employment agency Manpower, provides the best illustration of the opportunties open to individuals. The survey covered more than 2,100 companies and showed that 31% of engineering employers anticipated job increases, against 10% predicting decreases.

However, employers are struggling to find the skilled people they need. In the West Midlands 48% of manufacturers report recruitment difficulties, according to the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce – 10% more than a year ago.

Pay remains a key influence in some sectors. Engineering employers group the EEF this month reported that pay settlements for the last quarter of 1996 averaged 3.18%, down from 3.56% in the same period in 1995.

One industry where pay is a particular concern for engineers is aerospace. British Aerospace is looking for more than 300 engineers but recruitment consultants say it is having trouble finding them, chiefly because the pay does not match that of overseas firms. Rolls-Royce and Shorts also need engineers.

One way round this is to recruit outside the sector. A BAe staffer says engineering skills being sought in the current recruitment campaign are also available in the motor industry.

The skills shortage is biting in major growth areas. Dr Dennis Zachary, head of consultancy at Tallis Consultancy, BT’s business consulting arm, says: `It’s very difficult to find telecommunications consultants, because the marketplace is booming for communications engineers acting as consultants.

`There are loads of people with the right skills. But there is difficulty finding people with experience, because demand is outstripping supply,’ says Zachary.

Lisa Bottle, communications manager at Crawley-based Thomson Training & Simulation, says recruitment of engineers has become a major issue.

`We found it progressively harder through last year to recruit people, mainly due to the improving economic situation, combined with a scarcity of relevant skills and experience. We’re now trying to look at the whole issue long-term, in terms of raising the profile of engineering through training.’

Kevin Sheerin, human resources director of bearings group NSK-RHP Europe, is worried by recruitment trends. Headquartered at Ruddington in Nottingham, the company is having difficulty finding the right sort of engineers.

`It is not a problem with inexperienced mechanical engineers, but it’s quite hard to find experienced mechanicals – say with three or four years’ experience.

`At our Newark factory, in the last three or four months we’ve looked for electronics people with experience on CNC machines. In the end we decided to train them ourselves. In the past six months we have looked for packaging engineers. Of 10 applications there were only three we could consider vaguely relevant,’ he says.

`If you speak to the universities, there are fewer people doing mechanical engineering. There seems to be some evidence that it’s not as attractive a profession as it was. There’s anecdotal evidence that some people are simply leaving engineering,’ says Sheerin.

The changing nature of the employment market may be contributing to engineers avoiding job changes. Research from the Institute of Personnel and Development late last year showed that almost three out of four companies made workers redundant last year, with a 15% turnover for full-time workers.

Oonagh Ryder, the institute’s employment policy adviser, said that seeing people being laid off `may be contributing to people’s sense of job insecurity’.

That feeling may be seizing up the engineers’ job market particularly in the north of England.

Stephen Bucas, head of personnel at Alcan Smelting & Power UK in Lynemouth in Northumberland, says 90% of vacancies are filled through internal promotions within the Alcan group and turnover is less than 1%. I equate that to the fact that this is a high unemployment area and we do pay reasonable salaries,’ Bucas says.

Research published this month by the CBI and consultancy Business Strategies will add to the insecurity. Despite an expectation of more orders over the next four months in most of Britain, manufacturers in the north of England are expecting the biggest output fall for three years and thought they would cut staff at the fastest rate since November 1993.

The pound’s strength also hit exports in most of England and Scotland, the report says, while the only areas with an upbeat prognosis were Wales and the south west of England.

Stan Conquest, general manager technical services and recruitment at Manpower, says the north, Midlands and Scotland are worst hit by skills shortages in software and hardware engineers.

`Certainly there’ll be sectors like Yorkshire which will have more of a heavy engineering requirement and those manufacturing areas will want more CNC skills,’ Conquest says.

He points out that the national average of 6-7% annual turnover in engineers `doesn’t reflect contract personnel and people recruited via companies like Manpower which take engineers on to their books as their own employees’.