Skills, waves and a nuclear opportunity

Features Editor

A cross-section from yesterday’s inbox is revealing about UK industry, its prospects and how it could work with others.

A selection of emails I received yesterday throws some interesting light on the state of the UK engineering sector.

First, it’s the time of the year when the Institute of Engineering and Technology (IET) publishes its annual Skills and Demand in Industry survey. This year, it reveals that demand for engineers remains strong, but that more companies are finding it difficult to recruit people with the necessary skills. Just over half of the 400 companies quizzed in the survey are recruiting engineering staff this year, almost two-thirds saw the shortage of engineers in the UK as a threat to their business and 69 per cent of graduate employers reported a lack of suitable recruits.

In a worrying finding, 66 per cent of respondents said that the education system would struggle to keep up with the skills needed to cope with new technologies. One respondent, Keith Loughlin, technical Engineering services manager at Tata Long Steels, said that “we are not convinced that universities are focused on preparing their students for the workplace. They have become funding-driven, not outcome-driven, and seem to have lost the will to link the teaching of STEM subjects to industry requirements.” In particular, he noted, electrical engineering courses are tending to focus on electronics rather than power engineering, which he speculates might be because it’s cheaper to give students circuit boards and components than to give them experience of large motors, transformers and switchgear.

It can hardly be surprising that universities are focusing on enhancing their income, in this case by trying to attract research funding, and looking at ways of reducing their costs. Everybody else is, and the message from government for pretty much as long as I can remember is that this is the correct course of action to take, at least in terms of finance. If engineering companies believe that this revenue-protecting approach is damaging their prospects, the onus must surely be on them to help universities to make up the resulting shortfall — although this is something of a vicious circle, as if the companies can’t get the engineers they need, their own revenue will fall and they won’t be able to chip in to make up the revenue they want the universities to surrender by not going for as much research. The reprt does indicate that companies recognise the need to support graduates through the transition into work.

Recruitment of experienced engineers seems to be a particular problem, with 68 per cent reporting difficulty in recruiting engineers with 5-10 years experience, but it says there are “significantly more skills gaps across all types of recruits than in previous years and there are particular challenges in sourcing suitably-qualified and skilled graduates.”

Another issue the report looks at is diversity in engineering, a topic close to the heart of the IET’s new president Naomi Climer, who I interviewed last week for our upcoming Women in Engineering focus (Climer, a broadcast engineer and management veteran, is the first woman to hold the presidency). This is not a matter of forcing diversity of any sort on the industry, stresses IET chief executive Nigel Fine in his foreword to the report, but of making sure, firstly, that everybody who might want to become an engineer is aware of the variety of the profession and its potential for creativity and to change people’s lives (something which applies particularly to girls and their parents, who the IET believes are still getting inadequate information); and secondly to reassure all prospective engineers (and potential employees) that they’ll be able to work in a welcoming and supportive atmosphere. This might seem like trivial to some, but research indicates that the provision of support groups, for women or LGBT staff, has real and positive benefits in reducing the isolation that workers can feel when they are in a minority at work, alleviating stress and improving productivity. The report found that 57 per cent of companies don’t have gender initiatives of any sort, and 75 per cent have no LGBT or ethnic initiatives.

This is not a matter of quotas, forcing people into positions for which they are not suited, depriving anybody of deserved positions, or “political correctness”. It’s to do with making sure that people have all the information they need to make decisions about their education and careers, to support their families in their decisions; and with having the courtesy to treat everyone in an organisation with respect. There can be no doubt that this is to be encouraged.

Fine believes that the sector may be able to learn from other industries which were historically male-dominated but have since become much more diverse, such as medicine and accountancy. “It also means working with parents and teachers to promote engineering as a creative, rewarding and exciting profession for girls, as well as boys,” he added.

Another selection from my inbox highlights the continuing Sino-British collaboration we’re set to hear much more of with President Xi’s visit. The European Marine Energy Centre in Orkney, an old friend of The Engineer, is to support the establishment of a similar facility in China, at Quingdao, which will focus particularly on wave energy. “As the first test centre of its kind, EMEC has endured some steep learning curves during its own development, and we see no point in other countries having to reinvent the wheel,” commented EMEC commercial director Oliver Wragg. Prof Hongda Shi of the the Ocean University of China added: “Marine renewable energy in China has the potential for a brilliant future, but we have a long way to go. The short-cut for development is to cooperate with the countries who have advanced technology and abundant experience. Scotland is no doubt such a country, and EMEC is the leader of the domain.” As nuclear energy dominates the Sino-British conversation and China’s use of coal-fired power remains a worry for those concerned with limiting world carbon emissions, it’s good to be reminded that China is also concerned with developing renewables.

The design for Westinghouse’s SMR, which it proposes to develop, license and deploy in collaboration with the UK

A third email brings me back to the subject of my previous editorial, on the development of nuclear technologies. Westinghouse — which these days is a subsidiary of Hitachi — has made an offer to collaborate with the UK on the development of small modular reactors (SMRs). The proposed project would see UK institutions work with Westinghouse to complete the development, licensing and subsequent deployment of a proposed 225MWe pressurised water SMR embodying some of the technology of Westinghouse’s AP1000 large PWR design in self-contained units with all primary cooling circuit components within the reactor vessel. The AP1000 has already received generic design approval from the Health and Safety Executive, and three units are currently proposed for the Moorside site near Sellafield by NuGen, the joint venture between Toshiba and ENGIE.

The company proposes that the collaborative venture would be jointly owned by Westinghouse, the UK government and UK industry. Westinghouse says it is in active talks with “a number of UK flagship companies who have offered support for the concept.” Westinghouse’s senior vice-president for new plants and major projects, Jeff Benjamin, comented: “The UK has a long and distinguished record in nuclear energy that dates back to construction of the Calder Hall plant almost 60 years ago. We are proposing a strategy that would put the UK at the forefront of SMR development, advancing its standing in nuclear energy innovation and creating significant economic opportunities through leadership in the global market.”

It’s difficult to see how this proposal wouldn’t present a win-win situation. It would make the UK once again a supplier of nuclear technology; and not just of nuclear technology, but of a technology which has great potential for many international markets and is already spoken of as commanding great demand. It would help restore much-needed skills, and provide opportunities for education and manufacturing. It could even help revivify the steel sector, steel being the essential material for reactor construction. And as it seems we have to accept it’s a sad fact that the UK would never initiate such a project on its own, the chance to engage UK institutions and companies with such a collaboration should surely be grasped firmly with both hands. We’ll be keeping an eye out for a government response to the proposal.