Where are all the engineers?

What’s the problem?

It has been widely reported that there is a shortage of engineers in the UK.  The Royal Academy of Engineering’s 2012 study, Jobs and growth: the importance of engineering skills to the economy, found that the UK will need 100,000 new graduates in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects every year until 2020 just to maintain current employment numbers. Only 90,000 students a year currently graduate in STEM subjects,  and when you consider that this figure includes some foreign students who do not have the right to work in the UK, and a quarter of the graduates will go onto work in other sectors, it’s clear that the deficit will only widen unless some action is taken.

And the problem is not just the low numbers of new entrants to the profession, there’s also the prospect of mass outgoings as large numbers of the existing workforce reach retirement age.

Yet at the same time as the number of engineers is decreasing, there is an increasing requirement for them. It is thought that “rebalancing” the UK economy away from finance and towards manufacturing is essential for stable growth. And the projects are there, just not the people to undertake them. For example, EDF plans to invest £20bn in low-carbon nuclear generation over the next 15 years, but 70 per cent of the current nuclear workforce will be retired by 2025. As Keith Lewis, Managing Director of Matchtech, the UK’s number one engineering recruiter, commented, “The UK is the oil and gas capital of Europe and its aerospace sector is one of the largest in the world. Renewables is a fast emerging sector and in need of engineers at all levels. The jobs are there and the industry is thriving – we just have to sell it to the next generation.”

Why is there a shortage?

There are many factors which have contributed to this situation, and the recession has only served to exacerbate the existing issues. One problem is the image of engineering as dull, unglamorous and poorly paid.  Little has been done to make younger generations aware of the UK’s rich engineering heritage and recognise the achievements of our brightest engineers. Research from Engineering UK showed that almost half of 7-11 year-olds thought that being an engineer would be "boring".

There have also been questions about the quality of STEM education in the UK, as employers have complained of skills gaps in the already depleted workforce. STEM subjects are often viewed as more difficult and less fun than other ones.

Out of those who do study STEM subjects at a further and higher education level, many move into better-paid sectors, or go abroad to find more lucrative opportunities. One reason for this could be the disparity between the cost of training and the earnings potential. As the cost of a university education has risen, engineering salaries have decreased in real terms. James Dyson has complained that it’s absurd that postgraduate engineering students are expected to live on grants of just £7,000 - £12,000 a year.

Engineering firms and the Government have been under pressure to reverse the situation but they can’t replace the missing generation. The fact that there’s such a well-established “old guard” at most firms can be off-putting for graduates joining the industry and it means that there are fewer people to train apprentices and graduates.

What action is being taken?

The Government and many employers have realised that something needs to be done urgently in order to both attract and retain talent. But there are no quick fixes. They have been working with schools to improve STEM education and awareness of STEM careers and done more to encourage apprenticeships and fund postgraduate training. Employers such as Rolls-Royce and Airbus have developed workshops and competitions to highlight how exciting engineering can be.

However, whilst there have been attempts at longer term solutions, the short term solutions have been less visible. There is no easy answer to plugging a skills shortage, but there are some things which employers could be doing to optimise the situation. With such a small pool of potential candidates, it’s more important than ever that engineering firms do all they can to give candidates reasons to apply to work for them. These include offering competitive salaries, training and development, and an innovative and flexible working environment.

To change the reputation of the industry, it is imperative that employers communicate that their workplace is forward-thinking and a place where talent will be recognised and rewarded. Employers looking to recruit the best candidates can no longer sit back and expect talent to come to them. They need to advertise their vacancies and be prepared to communicate their employer brand.

The candidate experience is also incredibly important. Sought-after candidates are acting quickly, and if the application and interviewing processes are too lengthy, they will be poached by competitors before they reach the onboarding stage. One simple solution for this is to keep candidates engaged and informed throughout the process. For example, simple “keep warm” emails, with updates on the industry and the company, sent to candidates who have submitted speculative CVs are a great way of retaining a talent pipeline.

In summary, only by taking a proactive approach, can employers hope to reverse the trend.