Chi Onwurah and Sir William Wakeham at the debate

Immigration key to closing engineering skills gap says panel

Immigration will be vital for filling the engineering skills gap in the near future, but cannot be relied upon in the long term.

Figures from the Royal Academy of Engineering (RAEng) released last year revealed that while the minimum number of STEM graduates required to maintain the status quo is 100,000 a year, the UK is only producing 90,000.

Further research by the Social Market Foundation has found that when those who do not follow a career in a STEM related sector are taken into account, the deficit rises to 40,000, increasing the pressure on employers to recruit from abroad.

With the Government pledging to rebalance the economy towards high-skill manufacturing and exports, a panel of industry experts at a debate at RAEng today said changes needed to be put in place to make immigrating to the UK easier and counter impressions that the UK is “not open for business”.

But this needs to be combined with a concerted effort to improve home-grown skills in the long term as well as ensuring those who want to work in the sector are made aware of the opportunities available, the panel said.

Sinead Lawrence, senior policy adviser at the CBI, said: “We are already facing these challenging shortages and it’s going to get worse because other countries are also looking to rebalance to these sectors as well because this is where we see the growth of the future.”

The introduction of an immigration cap by the Conservative Government was criticised, for both hindering companies’ efforts to hire from abroad as well as contributing to a general impression that the UK does not welcome immigrants.

MP Chi Onwurah, an engineer and Fellow of the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET), pointed out that restrictions on immigration are not simply about filling the skills gap.

“Engineering innovation comes from the exchange of ideas,” she said. “Even if we were self-sufficient in engineering and STEM skills we would still want to be bringing them in for the value of that exchange.”

Matthew Harrison, director of Education at RAEng, agreed saying: “As engineers we learn from our peers. If we bring in a high skill person from China or India, that person is a tutor for our existing workforce.”

As the UK’s service sector begins to boom again the impetus for rebalancing the economy towards high-skill manufacturing is being lost, he said, and addressing the skills shortage to ensure that the engineering sector is not left lagging behind must involve importing skills, at least in the short term.

But according to David Brown, chief executive of the Institution of Chemical Engineers, “hysteria” from the mainstream press is pressuring politicians to ignore calls from industry to make it easier for students and high-skill workers to move to the UK.

“What I want to see is the courage from politicians to say the Daily Mail is wrong, like it is wrong on most things,” he said. “I’d like them to say the easy solution of blaming foreigners for everything is wrong and is as wrong now as it was in the 1930s.”

However, TUC policy officer Rosa Crawford says the sector cannot afford to ignore concerns over immigration and must do more to advocate for high-skilled immigration while allaying fears that migrants will be competing for lower skilled jobs.

“We all know that every report on migration will have whatever figure is the worst, most sensationalist example of migrants taking from the system taken from it and reported in the press most people will read,” she said.

“The anxiety comes from the economic space then it is exploited and built up in the age-old fear of the other. That is something we really need to engage with because unless we tackle those concerns – problems around low pay and lack of quality jobs – it won’t go away. And that comes down to government investment.”

Immigration should not be used as a means to substitute domestic workers with cheaper foreign ones, she said, and that it must be coupled with a focus on increasing domestic skills, including an apprenticeship system that mimics the German one whereby the majority of students take part in vocational training as part of their schooling.

“It’s not either or. We need to have both quality immigration at the same level of pay as the rest of the workforce and a long term strategy for apprenticeships and education,” she said.

Brown agreed saying that the sector must capitalise on the fact that “apprenticeships are sexy again” and that the Government needs to remove incentives for schools to encourage students to stay on and study A-Levels and go to university rather than taking a vocational route to work.

Nida Broughton, senior economist at the Social Market Foundation, said her organisation’s research showed that developing domestic talent will be a long term project as the key dropout point for STEM subjects is at GCSE level.

“If you look at the real long term problem, it’s raising GCSE attainment across STEM subjects,” she said. “The education issue is important, but it’s going to take a really long time to solve.”

The solution is to improve the quality of teaching, she said, but this would be likely to divert more STEM graduates away from the sector. Instead, she suggested using high-skilled immigrants to fill the training gap as a “politically easier” move.

“You can frame it round bringing these people in to train Britain’s young people for the jobs of the future,” she said.

But a question from the floor questioned whether the real issue was shortages in skills, when applications for a handful of graduate jobs at major firms like Rolls-Royce or Siemens reach the thousands and there are countless anecdotal examples of British engineering graduates struggling to find work.

Senior vice-president of RAEng Sir William Wakeham, who chaired the debate, said: “I’m still struck by the apparent dichotomy of people looking for jobs being unable to find them and the circumstances where companies say they have a shortage. That needs explanation somehow. It’s not the first time I’ve heard it, I’ve heard it many times before.”

It was suggested that it was not the large companies struggling to fill positions, but smaller firms without the means to carry out recruitment drives or offer fulltime apprenticeships, and that an approach in which larger firms would help those in their supply chain with resources may help get jobseekers into jobs.

“We need more brokerage between supply and demand,” said the CBI’s Lawrence. “There are a lot of big companies that could do more.”

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