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Engineering Workforce Skill Gap Hampers UK’s Net Zero Goals

The engineering sector has an infamous skills shortage that could hamper the delivery of the UK’s net zero ambitions. Why haven’t countless industry-led programmes plugged the gap?

Bill Drury is a former technical director at Control Techniques, a £300m-turnover engineering company. “I can’t remember a time when there hasn’t been a shortage of engineers,” he says.

His reaction is one common among engineers when asked about the sector’s notorious skills problem: it’s par for the course. The industry, for all its problem-solving expertise, has never cracked the skills supply/demand conundrum.

The IET’s most recent survey on skills found that 47% of respondents reported a technical skills gap in their workforce. This is similar to a 2021 report stating that 49% of engineering businesses were experiencing difficulties in the skill-sets available to them when trying to recruit. This is a problem expected to worsen as the UK works towards its legally binding net zero goal. Although the demand for ‘green engineering’ roles has increased by more than half (55%) over the last five years, a report commissioned by EngineeringUK found that often this isn’t being matched by new joiners.

Back to school

The skills gap has not been caused by a lack of effort on the industry’s part. There are around 600 programmes providing STEM outreach in the UK alone, according to the IET. In June, Nissan added another: a skills partnership with Sunderland College for students to study a specialised engineering qualification alongside their GCSEs. Yet conversations with industry highlight that, although there are many programmes, they’re disparate and vary enormously in scale. Two of the largest are EngineeringUK, a not-for-profit organisation claiming to reach 100,000 young people a year, and STEM Learning, which says it reaches 1.7 million students and 270,000 teachers annually. Meanwhile, others work with as few as 10 to 20 students a year.

Data suggests that industry engagement does have a positive impact. According to information collected by EngineeringUK, students who attended any STEM careers activity were 3.5 times more likely to know about what people working in engineering did than those who hadn’t attended any. But today it’s a lottery whether a child will receive this intervention or not. In fact, almost half (47%) of 11- to 19-year-olds surveyed for EngineeringUK’s 2020 Educational pathways into engineering report said they knew little or almost nothing about what engineers do.

David Lakin, head of education, safeguarding and education policy at the IET, says this is because existing programmes are often delivered outside the classroom or targeted at those already on an engineering career path. This is why in its latest Engineering Kids’ Futures report the IET is calling for engineering and design and technology (D&T) to be given more prominence in the National Curriculum, ensuring that every child can be reached.

Among other things, the report recommends D&T be overhauled to include engineering – which is only mentioned twice in the primary curriculum – and that it becomes an EBacc (a subject considered essential to many degrees and therefore focused on more by teachers) to reverse the decline in uptake. In 2003, D&T was taken by around 430,000 pupils at GCSE and over 20,000 at A-level. Today, those figures have dwindled to 78,000 and 10,000 respectively, according to data from the Design and Technology Association.

The IET’s recommendations emerged from a series of key stakeholder roundtables held across the UK. Lakin says there was, surprisingly, an 80% crossover with what was being said at each event. “We were all very adamant that, to make a real impact, embedding any intervention into education was key to increase the numbers entering the engineering sector, so every young person has the opportunity,” he says.

He admits, though, this approach is “playing the long game”. When the report was published, the government initially responded by referring to the work underway in higher education, overlooking the fact that the report’s recommendations are targeted at primary and secondary.

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Shoring up the pipeline

Tony Ryan, CEO of the Design and Technology Association, agrees that D&T, a feeder subject to engineering and manufacturing T-levels, needs revising. He is drawing up a petition of leading experts that demands as much. “Key stage 3 [ages 11 to 14] is where our problems lie; D&T has stayed very craft-focused for many schools and that’s not what industry or society needs; we need problem-solvers, thinkers and makers,” he says.

However, many are cautious about putting more pressure and change management on already overburdened schools – especially post-Covid-19 and amid a staffing crisis. “There are no teachers,” says Seán Harris, director of membership at the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE), who is supportive of the approach but sceptical about how it might be implemented. In 2009, there were 14,800 trained and qualified D&T teachers; now there are fewer than 7,000, according to the Design and Technology Association.

One D&T head at a London primary school says lessons can be under-resourced, time intensive to prepare, reliant on parents as helpers to ensure safety, and without purpose-built rooms. Moreover, it is difficult to run larger projects, which often require additional funds from parents or PTAs. More teacher training on the subject would be welcome, they say – something the IET is also calling for. The ENTHUSE programme at STEM Learning, which offers CPD in STEM subjects, reports that those taking it are 160% more likely to remain in teaching.

The ICE CityZen Award is a digitised and gamified sustainable city planning competition where students pitch their idea of how civil engineering could be used to improve their city. Participants balance budgets against environmental and societal outcomes, and it is delivered in school by an ICE STEM ambassador. After its first year, 79% of students said they would consider civil engineering as a career. This year, 1,000 students across 300 schools participated. Next year, with sponsorship and a more digitised model that doesn’t require a STEM ambassador, ICE hopes to grow the programme to reach 3,000 schools.

Harris says the programme is different to what ICE has done in the past, in that it sells outcomes rather than infrastructure. “When you start selling outcomes – making the world and society a fairer, safer, better place – this attracts young people, particularly women and girls, who are statistically more favourable to this than making lots of money,” he explains.

What more can the sector do?

At a recent Associated British Ports summer reception, broadcaster and journalist Anne McElvoy urged company leaders to “put their hand in their pockets” to help raise the UK’s world-class education to something even better. Drury believes better skills planning is a must. As a visiting professor at Bristol and Newcastle Universities, he says companies regularly call up in May and ask for last-minute interviews with graduates.

After 20-odd years trying to find good engineers at Control Techniques, he co-founded the E3 Academy scholarship scheme in 2007, which offers 15 to 20 company-sponsored scholarships. Around 95% of students go on to work for their sponsoring company for at least two years, Drury says. “The government could encourage companies into skills planning and reward them for doing it. Shareholders could also do this.”

Ryan says a more “joined-up” approach to skills development from different existing initiatives would also be beneficial. He runs Blueprint 1000, which works with secondary and primary schools to raise awareness of engineering professions and help train teachers. Ryan estimates the programme, which lasts one to five years and is funded by company sponsorship, is currently impacting 6,000-8,000 students per year.

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The Tomorrow’s Engineers Code, an EngineeringUK-run programme targeted at connecting organisations that focus on engineering outreach for young people, looks to maximise impact by sharing resources, particularly encouraging diversity initiatives. This is an area where the industry is still seriously lacking. In engineering around 16.5% of workers are female compared to 47.7% in the entire workforce. Only 11.4% are from an ethnic background.

“There’s an untapped group of people that offer added benefits because the more diverse a workforce you have, the more diverse solutions you get,” says Beth Elgood, director of communications at EngineeringUK.

Since its launch in 2020, the initiative has had 270 signatories. Over half of respondents agreed it had helped them collaborate with other organisations involved in STEM outreach. Others said they were looking for more support.

Tracy Burrell, UK HR director of engineering consultancy firm Ramboll, says she wishes to see more focus on retention – particularly on addressing barriers for women returning to work after childbirth. “Perhaps the government could broaden the way employers can use the apprenticeship levy funds to encourage more employer-led return-to-work programmes? Or offer more support to families with the availability of affordable and flexible childcare options?” she suggests. Ramboll runs a Returners Programme, which offers flexible and hybrid working. This has seen 14 employees return and stay in the company.

New solutions are on the table, but why should the government, in particular, give engineering its focus amid so many other competing problems right now?

“Because the latest studies indicate the UK economy suffers a loss of £1.5bn a year due to STEM skills shortages,” answers Lakin. “That’s only going to get worse as we move into a more digital future.

Those skills aren’t there and we’re playing catch-up already, teaching children today for jobs and skills that no longer exist.”

Can the UK ever fill all its engineering skills requirements?

The industry skills shortage is not singular but shifts and changes over time, says Tracy Burrell, UK HR director of Ramboll. “Most initiatives achieve their aims, but some skills shortages take a long time to close, while others are quickly replaced by new ones.” This begs the question – can the UK ever fill its skills shortage with homegrown talent?

Seán Harris of ICE doesn’t believe civil engineering has a skills shortage – there are no projects not being delivered due to a lack of available talent, he says. This is because there has been an uptake in graduates entering the sector, but also because the rest of the sub-sectors’ demand can be backfilled “quite quickly” with immigration. This used to be predominantly from Europe, but is now from Sri Lanka, the Philippines and India. The sector is Tier 2 listed so, for a fee, visas can be obtained easily. Although it may not be politically popular, overseas talent can help stem the skills shortage – and has done for many years.

“It is probably not cost effective to constantly train people up for niche roles in mega projects that only last three to five years,” adds Harris. “When we were in the EU, no single country needed to have every single skill-set. Some countries specialised in trains [Spain, for example] and others in other things. Post-Brexit we’re trying to generate our own skill-sets, but it’s a slow burn.”

And, arguably, that’s not always practical. The National College of High Speed Rail opened in 2017 to fill the skills gap for HS2. It had two sites – one in Doncaster and the other in Birmingham – for 1,600 students. By the start of the 2017/18 academic year there were only 47 learners across both sites. This increased to 93 students in February 2018, but fell again to 89 by July 2018. Both have since been shut down.

Source: E&T


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