Skills shortages as far as the eye can see

The threat of recession has been made all the more tangible by the tragic events in the US, last month. Early signs, however, suggest that demand for engineers, especially experienced ones, is holding up. A broad spread of firms, from automotive component suppliers to satellite builders, are intent on finding new talent at two forthcoming […]

The threat of recession has been made all the more tangible by the tragic events in the US, last month. Early signs, however, suggest that demand for engineers, especially experienced ones, is holding up.

A broad spread of firms, from automotive component suppliers to satellite builders, are intent on finding new talent at two forthcoming recruitment shows. What’s more, the slump in the IT and communications sector means many companies are confident they can attract engineers with systems and software skills, who previously favoured positions in the IT, telecoms and e-business sector.

A wide range of companies is gearing up to bring new people on board at the National Engineering Recruitment Exhibitions to be held in Wembley, London, on 19-20 October and at the NEC, Birmingham, on 23-24 November 2001.

For once, fresh-faced graduates are not high on the agenda. Most companies are looking for personnel with several years of practical industry experience under their belts. But in a rapidly-changing technological environment, they also recognise the need to keep an open mind when trying to match highly-specialised vacancies to the wide range of engineers likely to be doing the rounds, seeking more interesting or lucrative positions.

Most companies complain there are still significant skill gaps. A recent survey by the Department for Education and Skills revealed that at least 15% of UK companies believe there is a significant gap between the skills of current employees and those needed to meet business objectives. According to the comments of companies featuring at the Wembley and Birmingham recruitment shows, this figure seems greatly understated, and demands action at government, industry training and academic levels.


Astrium, a leading European space technology company, is seeking about 300 graduate and experienced engineers for its UK plants. The company, which employs 2,100 in the UK and 8,500 worldwide, builds spacecraft at Stevenage and communication payload equipment for military and civil satellites and instruments for earth observation at Portsmouth.

Astrium is currently developing six of the largest spacecraft ever built, including three for Inmarsat, two for Intelsat, and the Utelsat W3A. It is also involved in the Beagle 2 Mars Lander and the Mars Express, which will carry the Lander to Mars in 2003. It is looking for mechanical engineers and structural material, propulsion, electronics and communications experts. Communications director Alistair Scott says: ‘It’s the first time Europe has won more space orders than the US. We’ve had to ramp up design and manufacturing capabilities and facilities to meet the demand.’

Cambridge-based PI Group, a subsidiary of Ford, produces software, controllers and dataloggers for Formula One racing and major automotive manufacturers. It employs 300 and is looking for software and control engineers with a strong automotive background. Recruitment officer Martin Butler is looking for a dozen embedded software engineers and control engineers, with at least two years’ experience: ‘There’s no age limit: experience and team fit are more important.’ The control engineers will need in-depth automotive experience. Considering the recent decline in the telecommunications sector, he anticipates there will be more embedded C software engineers around.

Alten UK is looking for people who have expertise in the telecom and avionics market. Alten is a French-owned company which specialises in R&D for a range of activities, from telecoms and optical networks, to database software, avionics and aerospace. It has a network of 3,500 engineers worldwide. Business development manager Geoff Cavill decries the lack of sufficient UK graduates with real-time and embedded software engineering experience.

Corus Rail Consultancy is looking for design engineers, mechanical, electrical and civil engineers, quantity surveyors, signalling design, permanent way (track) design and overhead line electrification experts. Personnel manager Joan Fenney maintains: ‘There are key skill gaps in overhead line electrification and signalling, and transport planning which need to be filled.’

150 new jobs

TRW Automotive Electronics is on the lookout for about 20 designers for its Solihull design centre. The company produces occupant restraint systems, steering, suspension systems, fastenings and much else. TRW was recently awarded a DTI grant of £3m towards investment in new plant in Birmingham, and plans to create 150 new manufacturing positions over the next two years.

Technical recruiter Dinesh Chahon says TRW is seeking designers with over two years’ experience, with degrees in software engineering, mechanical engineering, control engineering or electronics. He admits there have been problems finding people with skills in sensor engineering, vehicle dynamics or electric actuation. There will also be positions on offer for new graduates in the New Year.

Honda has a ‘broad sweep’ of vacancies from maintenance to quality engineers, at its Swindon manufacturing site, where it recently opened a second factory. Staff administrator Alison Whitbread complains: ‘There are simply not enough people getting into the ‘dirty stick’ end of the business. Most people prefer to focus on CADCAM and the design side.’ Honda is more interested in people with high skill levels and a hands-on approach than formal qualifications necessarily, provided they have experience in a relevant environment.

Leading defence contractor BAE Systems employs 120,000 nationwide and has about 1,000 vacancies for systems engineers, software engineers, avionics, real-time computing, stress engineers, microwave engineers and many other areas of expertise. The group is involved in a major expansion programme, with future projects including the Joint Strike Fighter, the Future Carrier and the Astute Submarine. Recruitment manager Stephen Shepherd remarks on the lack of systems, software and real-time computing applicants.

‘At recent shows we find these people tend to be targeting web-based organisations, when there is a greater need within design and manufacturing.’ After all, he adds, ‘we also offer good share option and bonus schemes’.

Bognor-based Hi Tek Power designs and manufactures switch mode power suppliers and has manufacturing plants in Bognor Regis and California. The company is seeking experienced senior designers and technicians for switch mode power suppliers. HR manager Denise Potter complains of a serious lack of people with experience in analogue rather than digital systems. ‘It’s difficult to find someone who has taken a degree in analogue electronics or specialised in power. There’s a real skills shortage in the UK as people favour the IT or digital side of the telecom sector.’

Age is immaterial

Balfour Beatty Power Networks says there is a general skill gap in its area, the design, supply and construction of overhead and underground electrical transmission and distribution systems. The company aims to recruit about 20 graduate trainees, including electrical, mechanical and civil engineers as well as project managers particularly with overhead line experience.

‘Age is immaterial,’ says personnel manager Marie Holloway. ‘There is a serious skills gap in this area. We will train people, with the support of National Grid experts, to help fulfil all our needs.’

Holloway admits: ‘This is not a flashy technology area. However, we offer an opportunity to gain practical skills of management, planning and commercial awareness.’ There are also opportunities for work overseas.

Experience also comes high on the agenda for NNC, a Cheshire-based engineering design, project management and technical consultancy, specialising in the nuclear industries and defence. It has recruited about 140 people over the last 18 months, and ‘anticipates growing at a similar pace for the foreseeable future,’ says senior personnel adviser Kathy Ross.

NNC is looking for senior designers, control and instrumentation and process engineers, structural and safety analysts and assessors with at least 10 years experience. Ross recognises this may be a tall order, ‘as there is a very small pool of people with those skills in the UK’.

Skills shortages may be an increasing concern for employers and the industry as a whole – but it looks like good news for people with the right experience over a wide range of fields.

The NER shows will be at Wembley on 19-20 October and at the NEC on 23-24 November.