Analysis: Skills shortages threaten recovery

The recession has hit job vacancies, but several reports show that we still need to nurture engineering skills.

A spate of recent research into UK industry's demand for engineers and the future supply of skills offers mixed messages about the profession's prospects.

The IET believes the 2009 edition of its annual Skills and Demand in Industry report shows that although the recession has taken its toll on the sector, the end could be in sight.

The bad news is that only 31 per cent of employers said that they plan to take on new staff over the next 12 months, compared to 63 per cent last year. The main reason for the freeze, given by a third of those who will not be recruiting this year, was financial constraints.

However, only 12 per cent thought that this would be a problem in two to three years, fuelling speculation that the recession is coming to an end. The risk then is that the skills shortages revealed by previous IET surveys will resurface. Forty per cent of companies said they were concerned about losing their skills base.

"Retraining and professional development will be needed to re-engage the skilled engineers lost during the recession," said IET chief executive Nigel Fine. "Without a concerted effort now, it is likely that the UK will quickly experience a greater shortage of engineering skills than before the recession."

A particular cause for concern was the low number of companies planning to offer engineering roles to postgraduates. The fall from a quarter of firms last year to 12 per cent in 2009 could be an indication that organisations are cutting back on research and development, the IET fears, and may lose out when the economy picks up.

Brighter prospects for the long-term health of UK industry came from the Engineering and Technology Board's 'Brand Monitor' barometer of public perceptions.

In the past year, the proportion of people who say they would recommend a career in engineering has risen from 66 per cent to 85 per cent. More parents and guardians consider it 'desirable', although the increase was modest, up from 56 per cent to 62 per cent.

Unfortunately, this positive shift doesn't seem to be filtering down to young people. Whereas almost half of 16-24 year olds questioned think engineering is attractive, only 18 per cent of 11-16s feel the same and around half of 7-11 year olds said they think it would be a 'boring' job.

ETB chief executive Paul Jackson believes there are many reasons for the change in attitudes, including high profile projects like the Olympics and a shift from 'financial engineering' to 'real engineering'. "We must pull together to increase this promising trend, paying particular attention to targeting the under-16s who remain our biggest challenge in terms of engagement," he commented.

The ETB is already calling for careers guidance to be made compulsory in schools from the age of nine, to address discrepancies between the quantity and quality of advice received by pupils around the UK.

Scotland aims to provide every school leaver with at least one careers interview, and Wales has a 90 per cent target, while in Northern Ireland over 70 per cent of school leavers are guaranteed an interview. In England, by contrast, there is no target and latest estimates indicate that around 60 per cent of students could be missing out.

That might go some way towards tackling the depressing findings of an exercise backed by one of the UK's biggest engineering companies, which revealed "disturbingly low levels of awareness and interest, and a picture of confusion about the role of engineering, with the majority of young people and parents regarding it as dirty and menial work".

'Engineering Our Future', commissioned by National Grid and involving interviews with more than 1,300 young people aged between 14 and 19, found evidence of confusion about the role of engineers, with most unable to name a recent engineering achievement.

As well as evidence that teachers and parents still think engineering is a career for those who are less academic, the research found that the 'blue collar' images of men in overalls who fix things persist, and that girls are ten times less likely to pursue a career in engineering.

"This report makes extremely worrying reading," says National Grid chief executive Steve Holliday. "We know from our own planning that nearly 1,000 new roles are needed by 2020. We need to inspire today's youth and help them to see how exciting and interesting a career in engineering can be."

The company says it has reviewed its education and skills programme in light of the findings. As well as launching a 'School Power' scheme that will send volunteers into primary schools, it is collaborating with the Royal Academy of Engineering to develop a blueprint for effective work experience and create a mentoring programme aimed at teachers and careers advisors.

This year's exam results did at least deliver some good news. The IET joined engineering organisations in welcoming the increasing number of young people studying maths and science at A level, but warned that the profession needs to help encourage the trend.

Results for students in England, Wales and Northern Ireland revealed an 11 per cent rise in the number who took maths A Level, 15 per cent in further maths and 5 per cent in physics, with high proportions achieving good grades.

Nigel Fine stressed the importance of ensuring that the improvement becomes a long-term trend. "We need more young people to study maths and science, as it provides a perfect grounding for careers in engineering and technology," he said. "Science and engineering will provide the solutions to the challenges we face, such as climate change, food and water supply, and energy security."

At GCSE level, separate sciences continue to grow in popularity, with biology up 18 per cent, chemistry up 20 per cent and physics up 21 per cent.

Among those claiming credit for the resurgence were the creators of a new curriculum. Designed by the University of York Science Education Group and the Nuffield Foundation, Twenty First Century Science was first offered to schools in 2006 as part of wider changes to GCSE science and aims to give students an understanding of everyday science.

Another IET report looks at new approaches to attracting young people to the profession. 'Transforming Engineering Education' looks at the first year of the diploma for 14-19 year olds. Introduced in September 2008, the qualification was developed with input from employers and is run in partnership with local firms. It is taught at foundation and higher level - equivalent to GCSE - and an advanced level equivalent to three-and-a-half A levels.

Almost 3,000 students have signed up, with demand expected to increase significantly. The IET says it is pleased with the way the diploma is being implemented and that it is providing a challenge even for very able students, but it acknowledges that its public profile needs to be improved.

The engineering community has sometimes been overly cautious about tackling bad press, including suggestions in national newspapers that diplomas represent a dumbing down of education, says the report. "This has left the field open to detractors, most of whom have a poor understanding of the diploma."

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