UK’s dependence on importing engineers from abroad is not sustainable, a government-commissioned review has said, stressing the importance of inspiring young Britons to take up engineering as a career.
The review, led by Professor John Perkins, the chief scientific adviser to the Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS), concluded that while there is "substantial demand" for engineers in the UK economy, there is also substantial evidence of shortages in specific areas of the industry – including IT, oil and gas extraction, electronic and optical engineering.
"Whilst this Review welcomes the fact that the Government allows employers to import engineering skills in key shortage areas, this should not be our long-term solution," the review says.
"We should support the UK's young people by preparing them to compete for highly-paid skilled engineering jobs, improving their career prospects and reducing the need to import engineering skills."
Especially alarming is the proportion of women among the UK’s engineers with only one in ten engineering professionals in the country being female. The review says the UK has the lowest proportion of female engineers in the whole EU.
In the future, the review expects, changes in the economy will require even more professionals to work in the engineering sector – something the current strategy of importing skilled workers from abroad will not be able to address.
"I hope this report will be a call to action that will bring engineering employers, the profession and educators together, to own and collectively shape a future in which our supply of engineers grows in quality as well as quantity," said Professor Perkins.
To help tackle the problem, BIS plans to invest £18m in a new elite training facility at the Manufacturing Technology Centre in Coventry. Further funding will be made available to employers looking to introduce new programmes to improve skills of the workforce, amounting up to £30m.
"Engineering has a vital role to play in the future of UK Industry,” Business Secretary Vince Cable commented on the review. “It is important that we act now to ensure businesses have access to the skills they require to enable them to grow. We cannot do this alone so I am calling on employers and education professionals to get involved and inspire the next generation of engineers," he said.
Engineering skills take a long time to develop - starting with young people studying science and maths at school - so in the short term the UK can boost the number of people in the industry by investing in those that already work in it, and encouraging those that have left the profession to return.
Others may have studied related subjects and could be helped to "convert" and take a degree in engineering, the report says.
"The UK urgently needs 87,000 new engineers every year to give our economy any chance of future growth, yet we currently only manage to recruit 51,000. As each day goes by, the UK loses 100 skilled engineers,” said Stephen Tetlow, Chief Executive of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.
“If we do not meet the shortfall in skills we won’t just slip down the scale of world competitiveness, we will fall off the cliff,” he said, explaining how serious the situation is as less than 20 per cent of all students take maths beyond GCSE.
“In a time of high unemployment, especially in the 18-25 age group, it is simply wrong to rely solely on importing the necessary talent or, more seriously, to allow industry to relocate overseas,” Tetlow said.
Nigel Fine, IET Chief Executive, said: “We welcome the Perkins’ Review: its recommendations offer a clear way forward to close the engineering skills gap. The IET has worked for many years to highlight to policy makers, academia and employers that this skills gap needs urgent attention, so it’s heartening that the Review focuses on galvanising all these parties into action to deliver its recommendations. Only an ‘all hands on deck’ approach can address the problem with conviction.
The report's launch coincides with the start of Tomorrow's Engineers Week.