IET president Professor Andy Hopper speaking at the launch of the IET's Skills Survey

Employers 'must do more' to address skills shortage

Employers struggling to recruit engineers and technicians must do more to address the skills shortage affecting them.

The Institution of Engineering and Technology’s (IET) eighth annual 'Engineering and Technology: Skills & Demand in Industry' report has found that, despite confidence in being able to find the right staff falling for the second year in a row, just 20 per cent of employers said that they plan to retrain existing staff.

Almost a quarter of companies said they are planning no actions to recruit the staff they need and, while some employers seem to recognise the need to engage with the education system, a third of those that don’t said it was because they see no benefit in doing so.

“Our skills survey shows that many of the UK’s engineering employers are suffering from engineering skills gaps, shortages and an ageing workforce, and this will only get worse in the future when huge numbers of engineers and technicians are forecast to be needed for new infrastructure and energy projects,” IET president Professor Andy Hopper said before the launch of the survey.

“There are some very good examples of companies getting involved in local schools and working with colleges, but our report indicates a large minority of companies who do nothing. They know they will have difficulty recruiting the engineers they need but expect someone else will sort it out for them.

“You wouldn’t leave it to chance to provide the materials, finance or machinery that you need. Why hope someone else will supply your most important asset that is your people?”

Representatives from industry, academia and politics gathered at the IET’s Savoy Place headquarters for the launch of the annual survey.

IET chief executive Nigel Fine outlined initiatives the institution has put in place to boost the number of young people going into engineering, including a host of scholarships and grants, but he outlined the importance of industry and academia doing their part.

“It’s really important the group of people here today get an opportunity to discuss some of the findings in this report and see what other things we can all do, because it is a challenging situation out there; but the solution is in our hands,” he said.

The report showed that, while 50 per cent of the 400 companies surveyed were recruiting, many struggle to get the staff they need, with 42 per cent finding that the skill levels of recent recruits did not meet expectations.

When asked what should be done about resolving this skills shortage the most commonly cited solution (33 per cent) was to improve the image and profile of engineering in schools.

“An awful lot of young people are slipping through the net who could be excellent engineers and technicians, and those are the ones we need to be catching,” said Gareth James, the IET’S head of education, while speaking at the launch.

But he pointed out that it is important not just to focus efforts on potential engineering students but to inspire all schoolchildren to learn about engineering to promote a “technically literate” society in which parents, teachers and decision-makers understand the value of career.

“Those people one day will be voters; they are going to be decision makers; they are going to be people in communities campaigning on all sorts of issues like whether a wind farm will be put up,” he added.

Professor David Howard, head of the department of electronics at the University of York, also spoke at the event explaining how research increasingly points towards a need to educate children about engineering at Primary school level to prevent them from developing negative attitudes to the career and dropping STEM subjects early in their school careers.

And he also said the creative element of the career should be emphasised more forcefully in the effort to change students' attitudes towards engineering.

“We have a system in this country and other Western developed education systems, which talk about the arts and sciences as if these things are in opposition and you choose one or the other,” he said.

“I remind engineers their problem is by definition new and unknown because if it weren’t they wouldn’t be engineers. We are in need of ingenious and creative solutions.”

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