In Q4 2017, 22% of UK engineering businesses listed skills shortages as their most important business challenge in the coming years. The Aerospace & Aviation sector is particularly affected, with 42% of industry leaders identifying a labour shortage as their most urgent challenge. Global demand for engineering skills is set to overtake supply by 2027, with airlines and international MRO providers identifying one clear reason: the average age of workers has soared in recent years, and once these engineers are reaching retirement, the jobs gap is not being filled. Companies must widen their talent pools to recruit the 1.8 million new engineers needed by 2025.
Following the recent government investment of £2.3 billion, the UK engineering industry is set to boom in the next few years, and young engineers are vital to the innovation and growth of the industry globally. A diverse workforce filled with people of all ages and backgrounds will enrich the engineering sector with new knowledge, skills and experiences. Young talent will help the UK engineering industry to create exciting new technologies in a fast-paced and rapidly advancing world, allowing UK businesses to remain competitive in the face of global challenges such as Brexit.
Derwent Training Association is the largest engineering training specialist in North Yorkshire. Derwent equip the next generation of engineers with a variety of skills, including electrical, maintenance and fabrication & weld, to provide skilled apprentices for engineering businesses.
‘Demand for apprentice engineers has doubled in the past six years and tripled in the past twelve’, reveals John Brockett, General Manager at Derwent. ‘We were mainly delivering Level 3 Advanced apprenticeships three years ago, and now we are training apprentices up to Level 5 HND. The sudden demand for higher skills was employer-led: local businesses not only want to take on young people to train but are also suffering a gap of high level skills and are looking to apprentices to replace recently retired staff.’
However, the demand for apprentices is not matched by the demand for apprenticeships. Like many other training colleges and educational bodies, Derwent has seen a slight but consistent decline in the numbers of young people applying for engineering apprenticeships, and last year the college had fewer apprentices than the amount they needed to meet business interest. But when the industry is performing well, why are young people not more interested in engineering?
The generation gap adds to the problem: ‘The reduction in the birth rate over the last 20 years means that we are losing the older generation to retirement – there is a gulf of skilled workers around the ages of 50-55+ starting to retire – with no-one to replace their skills and experience.’ However, whilst the birth rate results in a naturally occurring labour gap and Brexit is an added complication, with many European workers set to leave the UK, John argues that the reason behind the engineering skills shortage is closer to home.
‘Schools could be doing more to help young people get into engineering. Most teachers do not have a background in engineering and are not equipped with the knowledge to promote engineering as a career path to their students. One of our current apprentices came to us after achieving four A* grades at A Level (including Maths and Physics) and was frustrated with the careers advice in her school. Her teachers didn’t know anything about engineering apprenticeships, and instead encouraged her to apply for Oxford or Cambridge University.
‘Without direct exposure to the innovative and currently thriving engineering industry, some parents and teachers have outdated views of the industry and don’t necessarily see the career path and life opportunities that engineering can provide. Thankfully our A Level student’s family understood the value of apprenticeships and listened to her career aspirations, but sadly many students who are eager to get into engineering do not have the support and advice they need.’
‘Schools are also not receiving the support they need to get young people into practical courses for industries like engineering. Recent laws that require young people to stay in education until the age of 18 are biased against schools, who lose thousands of pounds for every student that chooses employment or apprenticeships instead of attending sixth form. The public and private sectors need to work together to solve the engineering skills shortage, and fast.’
Whether it be due to a lack of information in schools or a lack of exposure to the industry, potential young engineers often lack understanding of what it’s like to have a job, let alone work in the engineering industry. Students are often unaware of the career opportunities that await them and don’t know what to expect from an apprenticeship or work experience in an engineering business. This uncertainty and fear of the unknown can deter young people who could be assets to local businesses.
In a January 2018 survey, 67% of graduates said that they now work in a role completely unrelated to their degree, and that their degrees have effectively ‘gone to waste’. With 1 in 3 graduates also unhappy in their current job, students may not be receiving the right career direction for their skills and aspirations at either school or university level. Young engineers can match their passion with their careers, and an engineering degree is not essential to an engineering career – for example, graduates with popular sports sciences qualifications can use these degrees to enter engineering – but without the right support, potential engineers are unaware of their career choices.
Fundamental changes in the engineering industry have created a divide between seasoned industry professionals and young engineers. Unprecedented technological advances have meant that the skills required for engineers two decades ago vary dramatically from those now required for engineering businesses to succeed in the fast-paced, competitive climate of globalisation. Whereas previously hiring managers had a higher focus on initial skillsets of new employees, business leaders are increasingly prioritising potential for career progression and the ability to upskill.
Younger engineers are also encountering a problem unknown to engineers of previous decades: a Government study predicts that automation will affect one in five jobs across the UK. Skilled manual workers are at a higher risk of losing their jobs to automation as robots become able to perform a wider range of increasingly complex manual tasks.
Sylatech is a family-run design and manufacturing business delivering custom engineering solutions. With 130 staff, Sylatech is a fast-growing and prosperous engineering business, and Director of Marketing Gordon Gunn is committed to driving further expansion despite the engineering skills shortage.
‘Everything in the press about the difficulties of getting young people into engineering is true: there is an urgent engineering skills shortage,’ Gordon reveals. ‘Our company is rurally located [Ryedale, North Yorkshire] so it’s difficult to attract people of any age, whether engineers or employees for the shop floor. External hiring is a big challenge for us – recently, we had four different recruiters working on the same role, and none of them filled it – finding skilled talent is becoming increasingly difficult. Many engineering graduates seek sponsorship with global brand names or are set on a life in the big UK cities, so engineering SMEs in rural locations are often the worst affected by skills shortages.’
‘Our most successful attraction method so far involves partnering with our local training college to recruit apprentices and training up our own apprentices inside the business; our longest-serving employees came to us from apprenticeships. A key aspect of our attraction strategy is working with young people before they begin to think about career choices. Our employees visit schools to increase awareness and get young people interested in engineering and show them the vast range of possibilities that the industry offers. Our school visits also correlate with external industry events, such as International Women in Engineering Day, to increase awareness of national campaigns in schools.’
‘We aren’t the only business leaders struggling to recruit young talent: we have spoken with the Universities of Newcastle, Manchester, Nottingham and Sheffield, who all agree that the problem of getting young people into engineering is only getting worse. Of all University students taking STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics) degrees at any one time, around 50% are international students: if international graduates don’t win sponsorship from a UK business, they will return to their home countries and the UK engineering industry immediately loses half of its potential talent pool. International students are invaluable to the UK economy and all our industries, but we also need to understand why we’re not reaching and engaging the talent pools of potential engineers who are already in the UK.’
Whilst women make up over 50% of the UK population, just 9% of the UK’s engineering workforce is female – the lowest in Europe – while Latvia, Bulgaria and Cyprus lead with 30%. The lack of women in the engineering industry is partly driven by an underrepresentation of female engineering students, which again is much lower for the UK than other countries across the globe. Just 15.8% of engineering and technology undergraduates in the UK are female – in comparison, over 30% of engineering students in India are women.
However, the problem appears to start even earlier than University. Although there is now very little gender difference in the participation and achievement of girls in core STEM GCSE subjects, only 20% of A-Level Physics students are female; a number that has not changed in the past 25 years. Why are the numbers so poor? Gemma Hatton, Deputy Editor of Racecar Engineering magazine and former Formula 1 Trackside Tyre Engineer at Pirelli and Manor Racing has an idea.
‘The problem starts at birth,’ Gemma asserts. ‘Growing up, girls and boys have historically been presented with very limited career aspirations. If you’re a girl who wants to play with a plane, what clubs can you join? Does your older brother or father support you in your interests? Whereas boys are often naturally exposed to industries such as construction, technology, automotive and aerospace. The media has a responsibility to reflect the reality of women in engineering, to make young girls aware that they can become engineers, and also change the perceptions of their parents and wider society by reaffirming that it is ‘normal’ for women to become engineers.’
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development formed by 34 countries reports that degree choices are made at a very early age – at 15 years old, girls have already decided whether they want to become engineers. Given the low uptake of STEM degrees and the fact that almost 1/3 of engineers across Europe are female, the shortage of female engineers in the UK is not due to lack of talent, but to lack of awareness and opportunity. Women represent 50% of the population, and female engineers are a vastly untapped talent pool full of the skills that the industry urgently needs.
Despite people of ethnic minority background making up around 14% of the UK’s population, BAME (Black and Minority Ethnic) talent is also underrepresented in the UK engineering industry. Although BAME students account for 25% of university engineering graduates, only 6% of UK engineers are from BAME backgrounds.
The shortage of BAME engineering talent echoes the lack of women in engineering, but the reasons appear to differ: whereas women are less likely to enter the field, ethnic minority students are more likely to actively turn away from engineering after they have completed a degree. The high graduation rates followed by underrepresentation in the industry points to a variety of causes, including the lack of job opportunities specifically open to BAME engineers after graduation, and the ability of engineering businesses to effectively reach and engage BAME talent.
With 1 in 4 engineering graduates a BAME student, engineers from ethnic minority backgrounds are proving that they have the talent, but that their skills are not being harnessed by universities or businesses across the UK. The proportion of UK citizens from ethnic minority communities is projected to reach 30% by 2050, signalling an expanding pool of potential BAME engineers who could provide the new skills that the UK engineering industry urgently needs.
A recent report from McKinsey evidences that companies that score highly for ethnic diversity are 35% more financially successful than their competitors, with gender-diverse companies outperforming their competitors by 15%. Diversity is becoming an increasingly popular priority for many industries, with diverse businesses better equipped to understand and engage their global customer base and more successful in attracting and retaining talent from diverse groups. For the future innovation, growth and success of the industry, engineering businesses must find ways to become more diverse, starting with getting more young people from diverse backgrounds into engineering.
Recent legislative changes regarding education and apprenticeships are paving the way for improvements to engineering education in schools – but more needs to be done. Engineering business leaders can build relationships with local council leaders and lobby Government representatives to open up conversations about relevant industry issues, such as encouraging more students into engineering apprenticeships rather than academic university degrees and more closely matching education to the abilities of individual students. Like Gordon, business leaders can become Enterprise Advisors – representatives from local businesses who visit schools to provide industry-specific careers advice – by contacting the Careers & Enterprise Company.
By taking on young people for engineering apprenticeships, businesses can train up young engineers from the age of 16 and tap into talent pools before they have the chance to become disillusioned by lack of opportunity. Company-run apprenticeships will ensure young engineers understand the company and its ways of working from the very beginning, and apprentices can build and develop their skill sets in accordance with the growth of the business and its market.
Apprenticeships also promote a diverse workforce by improving the social mobility of thousands of young people every year. Talented young people from any background and any academic ability can quickly build practical skills that will set them up for life-long careers, without the large amount of debt faced by university students.
Last year’s Autumn Budget addressed the engineering skills shortage and recognised the importance of getting young people into engineering by committing to recruit 8,000 new engineering and technology teachers and set up a new National Centre for Computing. The £84m investment in engineering education is a welcome step to attracting more young people into engineering, and will be all the more beneficial when driven directly by the specialist skills and industry insight of engineering business leaders.
‘Getting the message across to parents and careers advisors is pivotal’, advises Gordon. ‘Parents and teachers often lack experience of the engineering industry and are sceptical about apprenticeships – sometime thinking of them as cheap labour rather than the start of a fantastic career – so we need to promote engineering as a successful career pathway.
‘We can’t expect the talent to walk through the door on their own – companies need to do more to raise the profile of our industry. The big names in engineering are more attractive to students hungry for a successful career in a competitive world, posing a marketing challenge for engineering SMEs.’
No matter how large or small the company, Directors and senior management can become Enterprise Advisors for schools and colleges in their local area. By organising Careers in STEM evening events and helping students with CV writing and mock interview preparation, engineering leaders can raise the profile of their company and extend the reach of their brand.
Getting involved with universities to bring local employers together helps to drive awareness of the engineering industry and increase the pipeline of local talent for apprenticeships and entry-level positions. Align recruitment strategies with national campaigns including 2018’s Year of Engineering, Women in Engineering and Black History Month to reach diverse talent pools and evidence to young people that the industry actively values the contribution they can bring to engineering.
In a globally connected world where students are bombarded with choices, we need to shout louder to reach potential engineers or we risk losing out on talent.
Young people in schools are unaware of the breadth of amazing engineering careers all over the world – we need to show them what they’re missing. Industry leaders and educators can work together to promote the importance of engineers to the history and future of our industries and our world, enabling them to become part of the incredible things engineers create and inspiring them to become a part of the industry that we love.
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