IET: Demand for ‘oven-ready’ engineers fuelling skills gap

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Engineering firms should stop expecting young people to arrive as ‘oven-ready’ employees and invest more in training, according to the Institution of Engineering and Technology.

Almost half of employers interviewed for the IET’s 2014 skills report released today said new recruits’ skill levels didn’t meet reasonable expectations, representing an increase in the perceived skills gap for the ninth year in a row.

The report also found:

  • plans to recruit more staff, particularly experienced engineers, were up five per cent on last year and driven mainly by business expansion;
  • almost 60 per cent of companies saw a shortage of engineers as a threat to their business;
  • there has been a significant drop in the provision of staff training in all areas except mentoring and on-the-job learning;
  • the proportion of female engineers remains stuck at 6 per cent despite numerous attempts to increase the profession’s gender diversity.

Overall, 44 per cent of firms were unhappy with new recruits’ skill levels – up from 33 per cent in 2010. As in previous years, the biggest problem was with graduate skills, as highlighted by 54 per cent of respondents. Confidence in school leavers has also significantly dropped since last year, with 44 per cent of companies expressing concern.

However, the report’s author, Stephanie Fernandes, said employers should be more realistic about what practical experience schools and universities could provide, and offer more opportunities themselves if they wanted to improve skill levels.

‘On face value it appears that the skills gap is getting worse,’ she told The Engineer. ‘But also it does beg the question how much of that is genuine skills shortages and how much is employers’ expectations increasing…There seems to be this general expectation now that new recruits need to be able to hit the ground running.’

Following a similar trend to past surveys, the report found lack of practical experience, technical expertise and leadership skills were the main problems with graduates. But 30 per cent of firms also named practical experience and 25 per cent cited technical expertise as the skills missing from school leavers.

‘Schools are where you get the basics – numeracy, literacy and general concepts – but it’s more concerning that graduates lack practical skills,’ said Fernandes.

‘There needs to be more clarity on things like practical experience because a lot of schools simply aren’t equipped to deliver that. If employers do want [more practical experience] it’s up to them to get involved.

‘They can work with schools and institutions to provide those opportunities, even for teachers. It’s not enough to say we’re concerned about skills. The time has come for employers to put their money where mouth is.

‘Especially at a local level where the skills needs are quite specific, if there’s a specialist skills need then it’s the responsibility of the employer to provide training. A balance has to be struck.’

There was some agreement with this idea in the survey, as 53 per cent of companies thought businesses like theirs could get more involved with educational establishments.

The report also found 59 per cent of companies saw a shortage of engineers as a threat to their business and 28 per cent thought they could promote themselves more to graduates. But a further 28 per cent thought there was nothing more they could do to address the problem.

Meanwhile, the number of firms offering staff the chance to take formal qualifications fell dramatically, with those providing short technical courses dropping from 92 per cent last year to 61 per cent this year. Mentoring and formal on-the-job training increased, however.

The overall number of apprenticeships has increased, with the number of Level 2 Intermediate apprenticeships more than doubling in the last year, but the number of Level 4 Higher apprenticeships has remained static.

Fernandes said she suspected most of the drop in training was due to cost and recognised engineering firms were still facing difficult economic conditions. But, she added, they also needed to keep up with the changing nature of industry.

‘Companies need to invest for the long term. If business is going to grow they need to be confident in their skills and invest in the future workforce like they would in other areas of business.’

Click here to read the full report.