At first sight, the year ahead looks unpromising for new graduates hoping to enter the engineering and manufacturing industry, or for those who may be seeking a career move.
The latest business trends survey compiled by the Engineering Employers’ Federation (EEF) shows a further weakening in the business climate. ‘The industry is deep in the grip of recession,’ the EEF reports, with demand, output and capacity utilisation all falling for much of last year.
Companies have started to batten down the hatches by reducing employment and curbing spending plans. Engineering employment fell by more than 18,000 in the first nine months of 1998.
But all is not gloom. Experts are quick to stress that not all sectors are affected, and some are continuing to recruit, while many firms were unable to find all the graduates they needed last year. ‘The aeronautical, high-tech and design sectors are buoyant,’ says Ann Bailey, head of education and training at the EEF.
She adds, though, that the profile of people working in engineering is changing. ‘We did some research a couple of years ago on what would be needed for the year 2010. It showed that there may be 1.4 million people working in engineering in the UK in 2010, against about 1.7 million now. But they will be highly qualified. At least 50% will have higher education experience.’
This is a recurring theme. All the experts stress the need for flexibility and a high level of skills. Those seeking careers in engineering and manufacturing, or hoping to stay in the industry, are advised to be willing to move between regions and sectors, as well as acquiring a range of skills.
But though transferable skills will be the key to future employability, responsibility for acquiring them will increasingly lie with the individual, as budgets for on-the-job training come under pressure.
The Engineering and Marine Training Authority (EMTA) emphasises the need for continual learning. To make learning more accessible, the organisation is helping develop a national network of open learning centres, the first of which opened in Westminster this month (see panel).
‘We are concentrating on smaller businesses,’ an EMTA spokeswoman explains. It is part of a project to provide a model for the University for Industry, to show how lifelong learning can be accessed by small and medium-sized companies. If this Engineering Learning Link is successful, the model may be applied to other industries.
EMTA’s spokeswoman stresses the ‘desperate shortage of skills training’. She believes ‘the real issue is funding. Employers are crying out for more government support. Arguably engineering is the most costly sector in which to train.’
Meanwhile, according to the Association of Graduate Recruiters (AGR), a surprising number of vacancies for graduates were unfilled last year. Six out of 10 industrial companies reported a shortfall in 1998. These unfilled vacancies were concentrated in the scientific, engineering and IT areas. The AGR found employers last year were willing to pay a premium for graduates with work experience or specific qualifications in IT and engineering.
AGRchief executive Carl Gilleard says it is important for industry to make careers attractive. ‘Research shows that although graduates are interested in salary levels because of student debt, they also want to work in organisations that value them as individuals.’
He suggests that graduates have more or less accepted that job security is non-existent, so the current engineering downturn is likely to have only a limited effect on numbers applying to the industry. Instead graduates will look at what skills they can acquire when applying for jobs.
‘In a global market, no sector is secure,’ Gilleard says. ‘Because companies cannot attract staff by offering a secure job, the only thing they can offer are skills which will be useful in volatile markets.’
Recruitment consultants confirm that despite talk of recession, there is a shortage of good-quality staff in engineering and manufacturing. ‘Our research shows that competition to attract good-quality candidates is stronger than ever,’ says David Mackintosh, managing director of Pinnacle Recruitment in the east Midlands.
He attributes skills shortages to a sharp drop in apprenticeships and a perception that the service sector is more appealing.
Ageism is also partly to blame: ‘Our database shows 40% of available job seekers to be over 40,’ Mackintosh says. The Government should do more to highlight the need to hire older workers, not just promoting employment of younger people, experts argue.
There are some hopeful signs despite the current downturn, Jonathan Lee, managing director of Jonathan Lee Recruitment, says. He advises job seekers to lean towards high technology. ‘Overall, there is a strong requirement for good people,’ he says, but warns that it is not easy for people to convert to the skills employers require.