Falling unemployment is bringing the risk that skills shortages pose to UK industry back into the spotlight, says Keith Lewis
The latest news of falling UK unemployment rates, down to 7.1 per cent according to the Office of National Statistics, is an extremely positive stride for the country's workforce. However, news of skills shortages, particularly in engineering, continues to dominate headlines. Rather than focusing on the problem, it is now time for us as an industry to work harder to achieve the solutions that will help safeguard the future of engineering in the UK.
The recent findings of Matchtech's annual Confidence Index highlight a lack of confidence from UK engineers in government ability to inspire a future generation of industry talent. The results of the Index reveal that over three-quarters (76 per cent) of engineers surveyed expressed doubt that enough is being done by government to attract young talent and nearly two-thirds (63 per cent) believe that the UK would cease to be a world leader in engineering in the future.
We also learned that over half (58 per cent) of British engineers say that they would be willing to move abroad, which paints a worrying picture for the fate of the engineering talent pool in the UK. It is therefore imperative that the right channels are put in place now to encourage young people to consider engineering as a career option. We have to get this right to ensure that the country has sufficient workforce in place to maintain its status as an engineering powerhouse.
To address this exact issue, we have seen a range of new apprenticeship schemes being put in place across the country, offering on-the-job practical learning for those who may not have the correct educational background but have an aptitude and desire to do the job. These schemes can be highly effective in teaching students industry-specific skills and can act as a gateway for entry to the engineering industry.
A recent survey by the Industry Apprentice Council shows that 98.5 per cent of those who take up apprenticeships are 'overwhelmingly pleased with their choice', highlighting the positive impact they have had so far. However, the results also show that less than a quarter of apprentices were encouraged to follow the apprenticeship pathway by their school or college, revealing that more needs to be done to encourage schools to advocate vocational education.
Schools need to be proactive in portraying science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) skill subjects as exciting. According to Professor Ann Dowling, department head of engineering at Cambridge University and one of Britain's most eminent engineers, only 17 per cent of engineering students are women, and the problem lies in the fact that girls are not choosing physics at A-level. It is therefore clear that, as an industry, we need to shift our focus to engaging school students from a young age, in particular girls, by highlighting to them the opportunities that studying STEM subjects can bring.
The Confidence Index findings show that engineers themselves lack confidence in the future of the industry. It is these very engineering minds that should be the sector's own advocates, and if their confidence in the future of engineering in the UK is waning, we must do something to turn this around.
With the engineering sector thriving, we need to profile 'industry heroes' to promote key engineering successes, in order to initiate pride among their industry peers and inspire the next generation. It will be the actions of these key individuals that will succeed in promoting the engineering sector as a career of choice.
The lack of skills in the engineering industry is not a problem that can be resolved immediately or by one party or sector alone. Collaboration is the key to change and what we need is industry bodies working with education, government and businesses to find a sustainable solution. If we work together, we can bring about the change that is needed to ensure the engineering sector has a bright future in this country.
Keith Lewis is managing director of specialist recruitment agency Matchtech, which is scheduled to publish a report next month on the engineering industry's current challenges