It's boom time in the world of engineering and technology but the UK does not currently have enough skilled engineers to meet industry demand.
If there’s one thing we do well at in the UK it’s engineering. According to Engineering UK’s The State of Engineering 2014 report - engineering and technology now accounts for almost a quarter of the turnover of all enterprises in the country.
Engineering and technology graduates have an extremely good chance of employment. The latest statistics show that of all first degree graduates 61.1 per cent go into full-time engineering and technology jobs (the top slot being held by medicine and dentistry at 91.9 per cent and the bottom by law at just under 35 per cent).
“The evidence is that engineering and technology degrees do lead to well paid jobs, in comparison with other subjects,” says Claire Donovan, head of Engineering the Future, at the Royal Academy of Engineering. “Engineering and technology graduates have a slightly higher than average unemployment rate six months after graduation because they are less likely to take a ‘non-professional’ job. But they also have a higher than average full-time employment rate, and these jobs are far more likely to be at ‘professional’ levels.”
And while climate change, aging population and the continued supply of food, clean water and energy constitute huge global challenges in the next few decades they also spell boom time for the engineering and technology industry. Among the areas of strength highlighted by the UK Government’s Growth Review are ‘advanced manufacturing’, comprising automotive manufacturing, aerospace, life sciences and agricultural technologies – and ‘enabling sectors’ – including offshore wind, civil nuclear, oil, gas and construction. Consequently, according to the Secretary of State for Business Vince Cable, “the UK will need around 87,000 graduate engineers (at Level 4+) – per year – for the next ten years.”
The engineering sector also offers highly competitive salaries. The latest figures show that within six months of graduating the average engineering and technology starting salary is £26,019 – compared to say, social studies, which is just under 21K. And if you score a job at a company whose business is specifically engineering the starting wedge is even higher – at over £28,000. Rise up the ranks and you could be pulling in £42K as mechanical engineer and nearly twice as much as a director in energy.
Currently in the oil and gas industry the wages are even higher – in non-managerial roles.
“In north east England a graduate coming into a company like ours would, after about five years, be probably on £35-40,000” says Peter Fraser, director of Fraser Hydraulics Power (FHP), specialists in electro-hydraulic systems and subsea cable laying.
“If they’re willing to go offshore for three months of the year that’d be another £30K on top. Or if they wanted to go offshore permanently then they’d be looking at £100,000 per year. And they don’t necessarily have to be at graduate level – technician engineers – people who have HNC and HNDs can earn that sort of money as well.”
The growth of contract staff
Historically offshore jobs have always been highly paid but more recently two other factors have contributed to their massive pay packets – the use of contract staff and a massive skills shortage.
According to a recent report by the Recruitment and Employment Federation (REC), due to our flat lining economy employers have been reluctant to employ permanent staff resulting in a huge increase in the use of temporary or contract workers. Given engineers are in such high demand many people can choose to operate on a highly paid contract basis – which has proven prohibitively expensive for many smaller companies – and also limits the availability of staff as permanent employees.
“There’s an awful lot of work in North Sea oil and gas at the moment so we’re seeing a swathe of engineers being pulled into projects in that region,” says Dr Ben Herbert, director for R&D and innovation at Stopford Projects, a global consultancy specialising in engineering design, project management and construction. “In turn this has created an immediate skills shortage in north west England which is very much reflected in the rates we’re having to pay staff and also to recruitment agencies.”
FHP’s Peter Fraser echoes this predicament. “We have trouble finding people and keeping them. We recently took on a graduate who stayed for two years and then went off to work for a competitor for £430 a day - we just can’t compete with those kind of salaries.”
A growing demand for permanent staff
However, with the recent upturn in the UK economy - the REC report also states that ‘the greatest demand for permanent staff since August 2010 has been in engineering’. But because there are currently too few graduate engineers coming onto the job market these more confident employers are finding it very difficult to appoint staff members. Of the 87,000 engineers the UK needs annually – the year 2013 was short by 36,000.
“I think that the focus on engineering and science degrees in recent years has lessened so we’re not generating the number of qualified graduates in these key areas,” says Dr Herbert. “There is a great push now but I think it may be a bit too late to fill the gap we currently have.”
Indeed one of the main conclusions of The State of Engineering 2014 report is “that the UK at all levels of education does not have either the current capacity or the rate of growth needed to meet the forecast demand for skilled engineers by 2020.”
To meet the demand for engineers many UK employers are importing engineering skills. Foreigners already constitute 20 per cent of the UK’s engineering professionals across sectors that include aerospace, electronic and optical engineering, and oil and gas extraction. And the situation is not just limited to the UK.
“I was at a company in Norway recently who just couldn’t find the staff so they actually went to India and took on 70 qualified engineers from Indian universities because they couldn’t get them in their own country – and it’s pretty much the same in the whole of Northern Europe,” says FHP’s Peter Fraser.
Government advisor John Perkins’ recently published Review of Engineering Skills proposes short-term solutions to meet the demand for engineers. One of which is ‘to encourage employers to come up with innovative proposals, such as creating “rapid conversion courses” for potential employees who have studied subjects related to engineering and technology.’ This ‘thinking outside the box’ strategy has been adopted at property engineering and management consultancy WSP (designers of The Shard).
“Certainly in the engineering sector vocational degrees provide a more guaranteed route to higher paid jobs in comparison to non-vocational degrees,” says Carol White, WSP’s UK head of recruitment.
“However, as recruiters we don’t only consider someone’s degree. We look for candidates with a range of attributes including a “can do attitude”, keenness to achieve technical excellence, adaptability and flexibility to suit a global business, and strong work ethic. We don’t only look for engineering degrees either - we also recruit people with geography and maths degrees for our development planning business for example. It’s about finding the right fit, not just the right qualifications - although obviously that is a very important part of it.”
Consider working for an SME
And instead of scooting after the big bucks both experienced engineers and graduates would perhaps do well to consider more carefully the opportunities offered within permanent jobs at smaller companies.
Daniel Fraser, nephew of Peter is Project Manager at Fraser Hydraulics Power.
“When I finished my degree in maths and physics I didn’t know what I wanted to do so I came up to my uncle’s company and did a few bits and pieces on the shop floor. Then I was offered the chance to do a masters in mechanical engineering which effectively gave me an in-road,” says Fraser.
Fraser followed his MSc with a post grad in fluid power systems – essentially hydraulics - the core of FHP’s business, while simultaneously working offshore and becoming more office-project-based.
“I have been with the company for seven years and I’ve moved up at a good rate – I am now in project management. OK, I am related to the family but it’s not because of that – it will be the same for my colleague Rahda Kolla who has an MSc in mechanical design and she does all the 3D modeling.”
FHP takes on two apprentices each year and trains them in-house. The company currently has one vacancy and is also looking for a graduate engineer to come through the management team.
“Incentive-wise if somebody comes to us with no experience or with a couple of year’s experience we would start them on around £27K a year,” says FHP director Peter Fraser. “It wouldn’t take them very long to get to the £30,000 bracket and if they got involved in offshore work after three years or so that would take their salary around to somewhere near £60,000.”
In addition to perhaps previously unconsidered opportunity, working as a permanent member of staff also offers security. One of the downsides of temporary and contract employment for an employee and advantages for an employer is that often contracts can be terminated at a moment’s notice.
What can engineering graduates hope for in the future?
Realistically then what can engineering graduates hope for in the future?
“With global development and the economy recovering the engineering sector is only going to get bigger,” says Dr Ben Herbert. “There will be more graduate engineers entering the market, albeit slowly, and the challenge particularly for smaller businesses, is retention of that fresh talent and enabling engineers to develop as the businesses grow.”
“Being an engineer presents you with a great opportunity to work globally within a whole fleet of different sized businesses on fantastic projects from oil and gas right through to innovative technologies in the green/renewable sector, and extremely competitive salaries can provide a great lifestyle compared to many other disciplines.”