A report by the Engineering UK 2017 revealed that the demand for Engineering & Manufacturing (E&M) talent and skills outstrips, by far, the current supply. This imbalance has led to a shocking shortage of about 69,000 skilled professionals every year.
Future projections show that if this loophole is not sealed by the year 2025, there will be a gap of about 1.8 million E&M engineers. Judging by the fact that the UK relies heavily on E&M as an economic pillar, such a shortage would spell doom. On average, the UK engineering sector contributes over a quarter of the GDP.
There are many forms of engineering in the UK – electrical, chemical, mechanical, civil, biological and software to name a very small number. If you stop reading this and look around, everything you see, and I do mean EVERTHING, was devised by some type of engineer, now isn’t that mind blowing?
They contribute approximately 1.2 trillion pounds of the UK turnover, this is about 27 percent of the GDP. In addition, engineering accounts for about half of the country’s exports and over 3.6 million jobs. In 2016 alone, more than 130 engineering firms featured in the London Stock Exchange’s 1,000 companies to inspire report. Concisely, Engineering & Manufacturing fits the title of “backbone of the British economy.”
This unfortunate occurrence is being blamed on the lack of preparedness in the education sector. According to Ann Watson, the head of SEMA, which is an employer-led skills non-profit organization, children should be introduced to engineering while in elementary school. This can be done by promoting Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects in their early stages. The problem, she adds, is that by the time they get introduced to the basics of engineering, their interest is already lost, or they have made up their minds regarding their careers.
Normally, the government curriculum introduces engineering concepts to students when they are between 16 and 18 years of age. This appears to be too late. The result is lack of encouragement and exposure to children who would have otherwise chosen to take up studies that favour engineering. Watson suggests that this process should be started earlier, such as when the students are still in primary school. If they have the concepts in advance, they are more likely to develop interest and eventually end up taking engineering courses.
The Institution of Mechanical Engineers, together with Tata, also blamed the education system for the shortage. In their findings, the two firms warned that the policy of the government to encourage industrial growth in the UK is likely to fail. This is because the education system is not producing enough professionals with the required skills. They further warned that if proper reforms are not urgently instituted, the shortage will rapidly intensify.
Brexit is bound to catalyse the shortage if it comes to pass (Nov 17th 2018 is when I wrote this). In the past, the shortage of engineers in the UK has been cushioned by importing the necessary manpower from the wider EU. However, with the country set to chart its course outside the EU umbrella, it needs major reforms if economic prosperity must be observed post-Brexit. This historical separation means the UK will withdraw from the European Single Market. As such, it will require home-grown engineers. Again, the area of free movement will be cut off. There is the threat of the country having to struggle severely in finding the required talent. In a nutshell, if the 2025 benchmark is anything to go by, it means the UK needs to find a way of training the 1.8 million technicians in under 7 years. Therefore, the 69,000 per year shortfall must be addressed by the end of 2018.
While most of the blame is thrown towards the education system, gender also plays a key role in the UK engineering shortage. The Engineering UK 2017 report shows that women are still reluctant to join the engineering sector. As at 2017, women held less than 13 percent of engineering jobs in the UK. They termed the results as “heart-breaking and underwhelming.” More effort needs to be implemented in dealing with stereotypes which may discourage women from partaking in STEM courses while largely encouraging their male counterparts.
For instance, if one happens to do a Google Image search for the word “Engineer”, the results will mostly feature tens of men clad in hard hats. The females will only dot a corner or two. In as much as Google cannot be perceived as a satiable research resource, it clearly announces the plight of women in the engineering field not only in the UK but worldwide. Still, schools, are the best [and obvious] places where the efforts to reverse such misconceptions should start. This will be done by restructuring the curriculums, career information, the way courses are chosen and how subjects are taught.
The other contributing issue to the shortage is seemingly the reputation of UK engineering. While the UK engineering universities are popular across the world, they mostly attract foreign students. Out of the total engineering graduates who join the labour market every year, only a staggering 25 percent are awarded postgraduate degrees in technology and engineering. From these statistics, it is evident that the reputation of engineering is poor amongst UK students. This is despite revelations that the number of engineering and technology degrees awarded from 2015 is higher compared to previous years.
UK students appear to rank engineering too low despite its attractive employment prospects and rewards. On average, a graduate engineer’s starting salary would be 26,000 pounds compared to other subjects’ 22,000. The poor reputation might, again, be as a result of misconceptions. For example, apprenticeship programs which are almost necessary in most engineering courses are viewed as “second-hand” education by most young people. Similarly, the increase in automation might be misunderstood for risking jobs as Artificial Intelligence takes over most low-skill opportunities.
This sector needs to change if a skills crisis has to be averted. If the target of 1.8 million engineers by 2025 remains, proper and urgent restructuring of the entire industry, down from the education at primary school is necessary. Efforts to attract more young people to take STEM subjects should be enhanced. Gender diversity should also be fostered because this is one area that could supply the much-needed numbers. If these changes are not made, with Brexit looming nearer and the existing workforce getting older, the precious skill will get scarcer and scarcer – and that is the last thing that any country needs!