Mind the gap

As concerns about a skills shortage grow, it’s essential for young people to consider engineering.

The government has marked engineering as one of the key industries capable of pulling the country out of recession. But according to a recent report by EngineeringUK, the sector needs in excess of two million new engineers over the next 10 years in order to achieve sustainable growth.

Higher education (HE) will be vital to this but there are concerns that the sector is not plugging the skills gap fast enough. While last year saw a five per cent increase in the number of engineering graduates, this is nowhere near the numbers needed to ensure the UK makes the most of its potential in this area.

’We know that employers are finding it hard to recruit the right calibre of candidates,’ said Philip Whiteman, chief executive of sector skills council Semta. ’Our data shows that around 96,300 engineers, scientists and technologists will need to be recruited between now and 2016… currently, more than half of technicians in the workforce have qualifications below world-class standards.’

Unless industry and the UK HE sector work together, warned Whiteman, the skills gap will have a damaging and lasting effect on the UK economy. In the year ending March 2010, the engineering sector generated £1.15 trillion in turnover – nearly 25 per cent of the turnover of all UK businesses.

Getting young people inspired is crucial, but many don’t understand what a career in engineering involves. A recent House of Commons inquiry into the views of students heard that a focus group defined an engineer as an ’EastEnders mechanic with dirty hands and overalls’.

’You still hear urban myths, such as “the UK doesn’t make things anymore” when in fact the UK is the world’s seventh-largest manufacturer,’ said Paul Jackson, EngineeringUK’s chief executive.

Jackson believes initiatives such as the Big Bang Fair and Tomorrow’s Engineers, which demonstrate the real-world-applications of engineering to students through interactive studies, can help change these perceptions. Industry leaders, however, believe these programmes are not enough and would like to see help from employers to bridge the gap between workplace and education.

“Currently, more than half of technicians in the workforce have qualifications below world-class standards”

There are several initiatives already under way to do this: companies such as JCB and Rolls-Royce regularly hold open days and have schemes with local schools, colleges and universities; Semta aims to help SMEs connect the apprenticeship system with higher education; funding for up to 10,000 extra advanced and higher apprenticeships has been made available, and the government has plans to launch at least 24 university technical colleges by 2014.

’Many larger engineering firms are already closely involved with schools and universities, but our challenge is to help smaller companies that may not have the resources or know how to establish links. Part of our UKCES funding will provide resources so that we can work with SME employers to build links,’ said Whiteman.

It’s not only new talent that can benefit from better resources in the HE sector. By 2017 the manufacturing sector alone will need to recruit 587,000 new workers. The demand is equivalent to three quarters of all adults who will have their 18th birthday in 2012. To fill the gap, the UK will need to capitalise on the skills of existing engineers and transfer them to areas of high growth.

Some universities have set up short courses to help experienced engineers identify and develop transferable skills, including Edinburgh and Swansea University.

But Chris Cassley, policy adviser for enterprise and innovation at the CBI, notes that encouraging more people to join the sector will not happen overnight. ’Young people in the UK have not been brought up to value engineering as a profession in the same way as they are in Germany. Changing this culture will take time,’ he said.

Given the scale of the challenge, co-ordinated effort from government, business and higher education institutions will be crucial to the success of the industry. Changing perceptions is hard but the rise in figures is encouraging. With the exciting plans British engineering has over the next decade, getting the message across to the next generation now will be vital to the success of the industry.