Brexit presents many challenges to the UK engineering sector

Brexit and engineering: Report outlines major concerns

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An industrial strategy geared towards helping engineers to make the best out of Brexit as well as a Shortage Occupation List for engineering positions that cannot be filled domestically are among major recommendations by UK engineers to the government ahead of EU exit negotiations.

As the government appears to be heading for a so-called hard Brexit, which would see the UK outside the single market and the zone of free movement of people, UK engineering companies are increasingly worried how the new arrangements are going to impact their future.

A report compiled by the Royal Academy of Engineering, which consulted over 400 businesses and individuals from across the engineering sector, was released today, outlining the major controversial points.

“Engineering makes an enormous contribution to economic and social progress in the UK, and we have heard from a significant cross-section of the engineering profession that leaving the EU poses a real challenge to this contribution,” said Professor Dame Ann Dowling, president of the Royal Academy of Engineering.

“For many we have consulted over the last two months, plans to trigger Article 50 raise questions about our ability to train enough skilled engineers to meet the country’s needs, to attract the brightest and best international talent to the UK to address specific skills shortages, and to collaborate with colleagues in non-UK European Union countries in a way that accelerates innovation that is of value to wider society.”

The report, called ‘Engineering a future outside the EU’, lists three major areas critical for future success of the engineering sector. These areas are access to skilled workers and academics, access to markets and foreign investment and compliance with and ability to influence European standards and legislations that affect engineering companies.

The authors of the report argue that with engineering contributing at least £280bn gross to the economy, which is 20 per cent of the total, the failure to secure prosperity of the sector could have far-reaching negative effects.

Inability to recruit European workers could affect large-scale infrastructure projects such as HS2, Thames Tideway or Hinkley Point C as the price of skilled engineering labour may go up due to the lack of supply.

Similarly, engineering research and innovation could be affected by restricted movement of academics and the UK losing appeal to its EU competitors. In academia, engineering has proportionally more staff originating from the EU (15 per cent), than across all subjects as a whole.

The report therefore suggests creating a Shortage Occupation List for engineers containing positions that can’t be easily filled domestically, as well as introducing temporary visas for EU engineers possessing skills that the UK needs.

The report warns that the UK risks losing its leading position in engineering research and innovation if it fails to stay open to international collaboration. The UK research and engineering sector has been traditionally successful in winning EU competitive funding and will struggle if those funding streams are not replaced. The report cites earlier evidence of UK researchers already being side-lined in EU-funded research projects as a result of the Brexit vote.

The report recommends the government to seek the closest possible association with EU research programmes and develop schemes that would encourage international mobility and collaboration in the industry and academia.

The engineers urge the government to create a new industrial strategy that would communicate that the UK is forward-looking, open for business, and an active and welcoming partner for the international research, innovation and business communities.

The report also focuses on standards and legislation that are crucial for strong trade relations. It says the UK has traditionally had a strong influence over the EU standard-setting process, which it would be desirable to maintain.

In particular, the engineers are concerned the UK maintains strict data protection and cyber-security laws that would be comparable with EU standards in order to avoid trade barriers.

The importance of staying as close to the future European digital single market as possible is also highlighted. This is particularly important, the report’s authors said, as the internet economy contributes 8 per cent to the UK’s GDP, which is higher than in any other G20 country.

The consultation also claims that the UK energy industries would benefit from continued membership of the European Energy Community. Remaining a member would help foster security of supply, ensure that the UK can continue to influence regulation, and deliver economic benefits, the report said.

38 professional engineering institutions including the IET representing over 450,000 engineers have cooperated on the report.

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