TV naturalist Nick Baker participating in an SET roadshow for schools

Analysis: looming skills gap threatens economy

Employers may struggle to recruit the engineers they need.

A skills gap caused by too few young people studying technology-related subjects is unlikely to be bridged in time to avoid damaging the UK economy, the IET has warned.

Results of the Institution's annual skills survey released this week show that as job prospects for engineers improve, a significant number of employers are struggling to find suitably qualified candidates.

Now in its fifth year, the survey questions hundreds of the IET's business partner companies to anticipate potential skills shortages in different sectors. Findings suggest firms are optimistic about recovery from recession, with over half (55 per cent) planning to recruit compared with just 31 per cent in 2009. That is good news for engineers who want to make a career move, but means that employers will face a tougher time attracting the best people.

A third of companies are already reporting a lack of confidence in recruiting enough suitably qualified professionals to meet their business needs. With business expansion the most frequent reason given for taking on new staff, and diversification an increasingly important factor, one in five engineering employers are concerned they will not be able to find suitable engineering candidates to recruit in the next four to five years.

The results support the Engineering Council's review of registered engineers which found that only 1.5 per cent of 3,000 chartered engineers, incorporated engineers and engineering technicians questioned were unemployed and looking for a job, well below the national unemployment figure of 7.3 per cent.

Despite small increases in the numbers of young people choosing science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) at school and university, the IET says the domestic skills gap is likely to widen as industry's demand for suitably qualified people increases. Around 20 per cent of science-related professional jobs in the UK are already filled by migrants. With a number of low-carbon economy initiatives high on the agenda, the shortage of home-grown candidates could become even more unmanageable.

Following the recent announcement of this year's A level and GCSE results, IET head of policy Paul Davies said: 'Unless we see a dramatic change in the number of young people progressing into STEM courses and then careers, the UK will struggle to deliver the new technology and infrastructure needed for a green economy.'

One step in the right direction, Davies said, is the new 14-19 diploma in engineering that the IET was instrumental in creating. The first cohort of students has successfully completed the higher diploma, one of the most popular on offer.

'This innovative qualification enables young people to progress towards undergraduate study or employment with the confidence that they have 'real work-ready' skills,' he said. 'The diploma has the potential to ensure that engineering is at the heart of the curriculum and on the minds of young people as an exciting career option.'

The message was echoed by business organisation the CBI, which warned that children in the state education system are far less likely to study science and maths than those in the private sector. While a third of private school pupils study physics, chemistry and biology separately as 'triple science' GCSE subjects, only 10 per cent in comprehensives do so.

The CBI believes combined courses do not give people the same preparation for A level. Students are more than twice as likely to progress to an A-level science subject if they have taken triple science GCSE.

The CBI wants to see an automatic opt-in to triple-science GCSE for the 40 per cent of young people who achieve level 6 in science at age 14, and the recruitment of more specialist science teachers.

One of the sector's biggest UK employers, BAE Systems, recently published its Skills 2020 strategy. A key element is 'through-career' skills development from school up to retirement. To ensure the 'talent pipeline' is maintained, this approach begins with encouraging young people to consider a career in engineering while at school, which demands 'concerted action in promoting science, technology, engineering and maths in schools, colleges and universities'.

Launching the strategy, BAE chairman Dick Olver called for an informed debate and close collaboration to address the UK's engineering and manufacturing skills needs. 'Without action, the UK's widening skills gap will have become an irreversible gulf.' he warned.

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