National Grid fears skills shortage

The negative perception of engineering careers could lead to a shortage of skilled workers capable of developing technology for future energy demands.

This is the implication in a new National Grid report, which shows that engineering is not deemed to be a desirable career by young people, parents and teachers.

The National Grid has responded by launching initiatives to reach out to students to encourage them to consider engineering jobs.

The group estimates that nearly 1,000 new roles in the field of power systems engineering will be needed by 2020 to meet increasing energy demands.

The leader of the report, Tony Moloney, manager of UK learning and development for National Grid, said he is confident these jobs can be grown within the UK population in time.

‘We’ve got five to eight years to do this,’ he added. ‘No one is pressing the panic button. We’re just taking action now because the changes we make today only start to take affect in five years. So that’s why we have to start banging the drum a bit.’

The National Grid report was compiled after interviews with 1,300 students, teachers and parents across the UK. The research showed that most students were confused about the roles of engineers. Approximately six out of 10 young people were not able to name a recent engineering achievement.

Additionally, the report found that young people, parents and teachers view engineering as a ‘blue collar’ and ‘less academic’ job that contributes much less to society compared to other professions such as doctors, teachers and the police force.

Moloney said part of the problem is that it is difficult to define what an engineer is. ‘In the UK over the last 20 to 30 years there has been a kind of dilution of the term engineer,’ he added. ‘It has got to the point that anybody with a remotely technical part in a job can refer to themselves as engineers. There’s no protection around the term as there is in other parts of the globe.’

According to Moloney, the other cause for misconceptions about engineers is their work is ‘invisible’ to most of the population. Children can clearly define the role of a doctor, he said, because they have likely come in to contact with one.

The National Grid is trying to change this, Moloney said, with a new scheme that sends engineers into primary schools with a programme of activities to stimulate interest in how energy, forces and materials work.

One example project, he added, will be to create miniature wind turbines.

The organisation will also be working with the Royal Academy of Engineering to develop a blueprint for what meaningful engineering work experience should include. Moloney said this is something that currently does not exist. ‘The two-week work experience requirement for year 10 students tends to fall into disrepute because they end up photocopying and making tea,’ he added. ‘Work experience done well has a lasting memory and so does work experience done poorly.’

The National Grid will also be introducing a year-long paid work experience scheme in poorer regions of the UK to give disadvantaged teenagers a needed step up.

The challenge of inspiring young people has been the focus of recent government initiatives as well. At the recent launch of the UK’s National Science and Engineering Competition, Lord Drayson, minister for science and innovation, encouraged young scientists and engineers to put forward ‘if only’ ideas.

‘Talented scientists and engineers are behind all of the greatest inventions and discoveries to date – much of which we now take for granted,’ he said.

‘Inspiring young people to become the UK’s future scientists and engineers is not only essential to the UK’s future prosperity, but also to solving the wider issues that we as a society face: from climate change and disease, to caring for an ageing population, through to strengthening our defence and security. It’s therefore something that I believe everyone needs to get behind, regardless of their interests.’

Moloney said the goal of all these initiatives will be to create a vast engineering workforce ready to tackle future challenges and create new technology infrastructure such as smart grids.

‘Engineers over the next 20 to 30 years will probably need to innovate in a way that will make the industrial revolution of the 19th century look relatively tame,’ he added.