A partial solution to the pressing engineering skills problem

Senior reporter

TRS, the industry’s latest attempt to tackle the skills shortage, glosses over the nuances of the issue – but any action is welcome. 

I’ve lost count of the number of reports and campaigns that have attempted to convince us that engineering is facing a skills shortage. It’s far rarer to hear about a potential solution to the problem.

The particularly interesting thing about the Talent Retention Solution (TRS) – the government-backed website that allows engineering firms to directly access and browse the CVs of job-seekers – is that it attempts to address one of the issues that makes it hard for some people to accept the notion of a skills shortage: redundancies.

I can’t imagine how it must feel to be told engineers are in desperate demand when you and hundreds of your colleagues are due to be made unemployed, or when you’re working in a coffee shop after finishing university with a master’s degree.

The idea of TRS is to put people in these situations in front of engineering companies who are looking for staff, bypassing the usual recruitment process that relies on individuals hearing about specific opportunities and navigating the application process.

The service was launched with the help of the Department for Business (BIS), in part to make sure government defence cuts following the last election didn’t result in thousands of highly skilled workers being lost to the industry.

Now it’s funded by large businesses that we’re told pay an annual charge equivalent to half of the average commission that would go to a recruitment agent for hiring one employee, and in return receive access to a database of potential new staff. Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), meanwhile, can use the service for free.

BAE Systems, thought to be the country’s largest employer of engineers, used the system to help find jobs for 13 people after announcing 600 redundancies at its shipyards in Portsmouth and Scotland. True, that’s a small percentage, but the service is still relatively new and unheard of – and that’s still 13 individuals who would otherwise have been out of work and possibly lost to the industry.

‘We couldn’t normally do this because of data protection – we can’t just show CVs around,’ said BAE’s head of HR, Paul Schofield, when I spoke to him at an event promoting TRS this week. ‘We need a safe place to deposit CVs and a way to point employers towards them. TRS is a great place for that.’

In particular, TRS should in principle prove a useful tool for SMEs, which often have the biggest difficulties recruiting, in part because of their limited budgets for advertising and the simple fact fewer people are likely to have heard of them.

The other aspect of TRS that will appeal to many people is the way in which it cuts out recruitment agents, who often come under fire on these pages – and indeed privately from some employers ­– for failing to understand how people with certain technical skills could fulfil roles they don’t have direct experience of.

However, we shouldn’t get too excited by what a relatively simple web platform can achieve. The skills issue is far more nuanced than most public campaigns and speeches take account of, and filling large numbers of highly skilled roles is likely to take far more than a database of CVs.

It’s easy to bemoan recruitment agents who don’t have an adequate understanding of the jobs they are filling. But there are likely to in many cases – particularly in instances where people are returning to engineering after time in other industries or after starting a family– when identifying an individual’s true potential – if they have the right support – will require a far more active solution.

Prof John Perkins, chief scientific adviser at BIS and author of a recent major report on engineering skills, is an enthusiastic supporter of TRS and told me he thought it was an important initiative that now needed to aggressively promote itself to maximise engagement.

But he also agreed that utilising all the engineering skills in the country, particular those of people returning to the industry, wasn’t an issue TRS could easily address. ‘It’s one thing to put CVs in front of employers but there’s a lot more to actually securing a position that both sides are comfortable with,’ he said.

‘Industry is very keen to say there’s a shortage of engineers. Yes that’s true, but one should be open-minded about taking on people in order to fill a skills gap and spending time developing them to the point where they can make a full-blown contribution to company.

‘Particularly for SMES, that can be quite challenging because of their shortage of resources. Where there are areas of shortage one needs to be quite creative in order to find and develop the people that are needed.’

Ultimately, no single initiative is going to solve the skills problem. It requires diverse efforts from all corners of engineering, with industry, academia and government all playing all role. But we should at least welcome TRS as a tangible action by big businesses to help their supply chain partners (and themselves), instead of simply complaining there aren’t enough engineers.