Skills crisis fears could be just a panic reaction

It’s that time of year again to scrutinise the A-level and GCSE results, moan about the falling numbers going into engineering and worry about the manufacturing skills shortage.

It’s that time of year again when we scrutinise the A-level and GCSE results, moan about the falling numbers going into engineering and worry about the manufacturing skills shortage. (Don’t we do that every week? – Ed).

Skills shortage? What skills shortage? A letter in this magazine last week detailed the plight of three engineering graduates who suffered difficulties finding jobs. All had undertaken a period of work experience during their studies but only one managed to secure a poorly paid post with a UK firm. The others either retrained or moved abroad.

While it would be wrong to draw a general conclusion from this sorry tale, it does suggest the question of skills supply and training is extremely complex.

Every year we wring our hands at the small numbers of students taking A-levels in maths, physics, chemistry and so on. Within hours of the results, engineering departments, unable to fill places, start banging the drum for more applicants, and the general chant is raised about the importance of manufacturing and the woeful lack of interest among younger generations.

Unattractive option

The majority of 16-year-olds who embark on AS and A-level do not view a career in engineering as an attractive option. Why should they? The sector is shrinking every month, the pay is generally poor and there are plenty of other just as interesting things.

Not surprisingly, there are many initiatives to attract more people into engineering and encourage students to take maths and science at school. There is a new GCSE in engineering and AS-level was introduced this year to encourage sixth-formers to do a broader range of subjects.

The first AS results, published last week, showed a rise in the number of students choosing computer studies compared with last year’s A-level figure. But the trend was still toward the ‘soft’ humanities and arts subjects.

Business groups such as the CBI welcome the AS-level because it allows students to qualify in a wider range of subjects. But this in itself is unlikely to lead to them choosing a career in industry if their true interest lies elsewhere.

While some university science departments might be desperate enough to accept a student with fewer than the usual A-level subjects and grades, it is doubtful whether top-name employers will do the same for graduates with a lower-class degree.

The danger is that the wrong kind of kids are ‘talked into’ engineering. In fact, maybe there is too much panic. The EEF, EMTA, The Campaign to Promote Engineering and the Institute for Employment Research say there is a shortage of engineers with degrees, as well as manufacturing apprentices and technicians.

But while the UK might be producing fewer people with the right qualifications, demand may also be slackening. The big manufacturers are apparently no less choosy in these times of drought.

John Weston, chief executive of BAE Systems, said his firm did not expect many difficulties in its plan to recruit 400 engineers by the end of the year. Even if it does hit problems, a company of BAE Systems’ size and global reach could just move the work abroad.

The mergers that led to the rationalisation of design teams and R&D work will also undercut demand, and improvements in technology mean there will be less need for shopfloor staff.

Laid-off technicians

There are now also thousands of skilled technicians who were laid off this year by telecoms and electronics manufacturers. It would be naive to think they will get their old jobs back when the economy picks up. The growth that saw them taken on in the first place was based on flawed assumptions about the popularity of new mobile phone technologies.

The warning is that a huge skills vacuum will open up when tens of thousands of registered engineers in their fifties and sixties retire later this decade.

But this could transform the prospects for the younger and well-qualified engineers of today. Better chances for promotion and a competitive salary would help make engineering attractive for those still in education.

It will take time, but the market could correct itself, with fewer engineers prompting higher pay rates and better career prospects, thus attracting more people into the profession.