Calling All Future Engineers – Your Country Needs You!

Published: 14 July 2014

Gather a room-full of manufacturing business leaders together on the subject of discussing the availability of skilled employees, and the result can be a rather emotive debate – veering from despair to new-found optimism for the future. The shortage of engineers in the UK has been recognised for some time as being one of the biggest growth constraints for manufacturing and a threat to our position in the league of the world’s most productive inventors.

For the last decade at least we have not produced enough school leavers or graduates with the necessary technical qualifications to enter the world of manufacturing as the engineers of tomorrow. EEF, the UK’s manufacturers’ association, states that nearly 80% of all manufacturers are having difficulties with recruitment – including the large illustrious blue-chip organisations. Siemens, JLR and Dyson, three such groups, have committed to keeping a significant UK-based manufacturing workforce, and are going to need to hire thousands of engineers over the next few years – but even they have to use alternative solutions to satisfy their demand. For some this means looking abroad for people to fill the gaps. Continued lobbying of the coalition government, by organisations such as the EEF, and by manufacturers themselves, of the need to alter the school curriculum to address the shortfall is beginning to have an effect. Now, funding and initiatives are being provided by the government to promote the subjects that young people need to equip them for a life in manufacturing – science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Whilst it is evident we have a skills gap for qualified and capable people in research, design, machining and assembly, there is no doubt that the environment for attracting and training people for a career in manufacturing has evolved significantly in recent years. The scientists, engineers, inventors and technicians of tomorrow now have more choice available to them for their vocational training than they have had for some time. For instance, University Technical Colleges (UTC) are government-backed schools for 14 to 18-year olds that provide specialist technical and scientific courses for up-to 30,000 students. There will be over 30 UTC’s up and running by 2016.

Apprenticeships are now more widely available, and perceived by many as an attractive (and more commercially sound) alternative to going to University for a full-time 3-year course, and the government is engaging directly with large employers on how to grow the number of apprenticeships, which last year totaled 140,000. We are still a long way from some countries such as Germany, where being anything other than an apprentice is regarded as unusual, but the UK is beginning to make progress in this area – and is at the start of a very important journey.

The Royal Academy of Engineering (RAE) forecasts that between now and 2020, the UK will need over 800,000 scientists and engineers to fill new roles and replace those that will retire in that period. Depending on what statistic you believe (press reports and industry body quotes vary hugely) we are producing just over half of the UK-domiciled STEM graduates that we need just to stand still. Meeting this demand will require a more joined-up approach as to how the manufacturing and engineering sector engages with their employees of the future and sets them on a career in industry from an early age. Wedded to this is the question of how the government can enable the international students that pay huge sums to study engineering in the UK to remain here and deploy their much-needed skills. It will also require a seismic shift in our schools to ensure subjects such as maths are kept in the students’ curriculum until they leave school, and that science courses are taught in a more engaging way than they are today – encouraging students to continue their studies through to A-level. That is not to say our schools are at fault – they are having to stretch their own resources to address the gap in the number of qualified STEM subject teachers that they need to teach our future engineering graduates.

Whilst our education system adapts to the needs of the manufacturing sector, there are innovative bodies such as the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre in Sheffield that have created their own technical and academic training functions, and this is being repeated elsewhere in the UK. Collaboration between universities and manufacturing organisations is a well-developed and essential part of the UK’s R&D capability. We are fortunate in having many outstanding universities – and many with an R&D expertise that can supplement companies in the private sector to good effect – whether they are SME’s or our world-leading international blue chips such as Rolls-Royce and JCB.

Further collaboration will be the key – between employers, the government, schools and universities – to create a deep-seated approach to tackle one of the UK’s most fundamental challenges for its future prosperity. As the global economic situation continues to improve, and as UK manufacturing receives the recognition and status that it so rightly deserves as a key contributor to a healthy economy, the next two to three years will be crucial in ensuring we have the engineers of the future to call upon – because they will be needed!

Jonathan Burke is a Principal Consultant at Berwick Partners, and specialises in leadership appointments in the Manufacturing and Engineering sector.

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