Five sought-after engineering skill sets for 2017 and beyond

The World Economic Forum predicts that by 2020 two million jobs will be created worldwide that fall under the STEM umbrella. While traditional engineering roles will stay to the fore, there will also be growth for engineers in a widening variety of sectors.

Given that there is currently a large skills gap, engineering apprentices, students and graduates with the right knowledge and abilities can expect to remain sought after around the world.

Here we take a look at five sectors where skilled engineers will be in high demand… 

Industrial biotechnology

Industrial biotechnology (IB) is an intriguing opportunity for science and engineering graduates looking for a well paid career in a fast emerging industry that is multidisciplinary, sustainable and essential to the global economy. Though relatively new, it’s estimated that this market is worth upwards of £360bn. 

In a nutshell, IB is the process of using natural resources to create new chemicals and ingredients for renewable biological resources. For example, algae strains to be used in cosmetics, or chemicals extracted from marine life to replace synthetics. 

In 2015, Scotland launched the UK’s first collaborative master’s programme in IB. Designed by the Industrial Biotechnology Innovation Centre (IBioIC) in response to industrial needs, the degree was administered and awarded by the University of Strathclyde, and taught at eight different institutions across the country. The programme had a 100 per cent pass rate and almost three-quarters of graduates left with full-time employment or PhD places in hand. 

At the end of 2016 the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) invested £2.9m in studentships led by the IBioIC to train 27 future bio-economy engineers over the next three academic years. Seventeen of these will focus on IB and bioenergy while a further 10 will concentrate on advanced bioscience areas such as synthetic biology. 

Also pushing the recruitment of young people and graduates into synthetic biology is product design and engineering firm Cambridge Consultants.

“Synthetic biology takes engineering concepts – such as simulation, standardisation, modularisation, abstraction and automation – and applies them to biology,” explains Richard Hammond, head of synthetic biology at Cambridge Consultants. “This allows the design of new products and processes by developing living cells and organisms rationally, quickly and efficiently.” 

Synthetic biology already has widespread applications in many industries – including healthcare, fuels, fine chemicals and agriculture – and is helping drive the move towards a sustainable bio-based global economy. 

“Applying an engineering approach to biology allows us to create entirely new products – such as a vaccine or data storage system – or transform the manufacture process for existing products such as aviation fuel or plastics for packaging,” says Hammond. 

Working in this field requires knowledge of both molecular biology and engineering: skills in thermodynamics, fluid mechanics, control theory, process automation and dynamic simulation are all required. Interestingly, synthetic biology also requires computer programming skills as software tools are widely used for design, simulation and big-data informatics.  

Software engineering

With pretty much every industry you can think of requiring some sort of software, the software engineering sector is accelerating at a dizzying pace. 

Typically software engineers take the principles of engineering and computer science theory and apply them to the design and development of software systems. Although equipped with strong programming skills, software engineers are mainly concerned with developing algorithms, analysing and solving programming problems rather than with actually writing code. They often also meet with clients to define the features they want in the software or test the software once it has been programmed to make sure it works correctly.  

Potential highly paid jobs include embedded software engineer, which involves working with programmes that are embedded in items like airplanes, cars, medical devices, and cyber security experts. 

The most recent Global Information Security Workforce study identified the need for an estimated 1.5 million more qualified people working in security by 2020 – highlighting the speedy growth of the industry. 

To combat the serious shortage of software engineers in the UK, global engineering companies like Renishaw are running initiatives to introduce young people to the general idea of a STEM career and has schemes that offer more niche software based apprenticeships.

“Renishaw offers a specific software-engineering work experience week every year, which, in 2016, allowed 12 students to explore coding and software engineering,” says Julie Collins, Renishaw’s education liaison manager. “Renishaw also offers a higher apprenticeship in software where candidates can study for a degree whilst completing work placements.” 

Aerospace and defence

According to the Manufacturer Annual Report 2017, the UK aerospace industry is growing ten times faster than the rest of the UK economy. In 2015 its contribution to the nation's economy was around £60bn and employment in aerospace and defence (A&D) hit the 270,000 mark. 

Globally aerospace and defence is set to skyrocket. A significant increase in airline travel is pushing commercial aerospace growth – with an estimated demand of around 27,000 new planes and 40,000 commercial helicopters by 2031. Meanwhile escalating international tension has seen a huge growth in expenditure on defence and next generation military equipment worldwide. 

Simultaneously, according to the firm KPMG, major aerospace and defence companies are massively expanding R&D into new, long-term capabilities, “particularly in cyber security, data management and mission software development”. Also in the offing is the development of reusable engines and launch vehicles in the low-earth-orbit sector (commercial space market). 

Consequently, a huge variety of additional roles are becoming available for graduate engineers in aerospace, maintenance, manufacturing systems, materials, mechanical, and instrumentation with aircraft manufacturers, armed forces, airline companies, space programmes and software manufacturers.  

Civil engineering

With a global population of 7.5bn and counting, our planet’s infrastructure needs are constantly increasing. Cue one profession that we cannot do without – civil engineering. Though a varied field, it basically centres around construction; designing structures such as bridges and hospitals, to developing transport infrastructure such as airports, railways, roads and ports.

“Our civil engineers help provide communities with access to necessities such as energy and water, improving quality of life and encouraging economic growth,” states Holly Savage, senior graduate recruitment advisor for global engineering, management and development organisation Mott MacDonald. 

“Sustainability is also key and presents opportunities to work in innovative ways. Its role in supporting communities of all sizes means civil engineering is always going to be in demand,” adds Savage.

“The UK has several high profile infrastructure projects planned for the coming years that require civil engineers, and so do a vast number of large-scale ventures internationally.” 

In the UK these include improved transport networks, construction of the Thames Tideway Tunnel – a six-year infrastructure scheme aiming to prevent London’s Victorian sewage system from overflowing into the River Thames, the Hinkley Point C nuclear power station in Somerset, and High Speed 2 (HS2), a new high speed railway connecting London with the West Midlands and the north of England.

But there is one large blip. With an already enormous skills gap and just under a quarter of existing civil engineers due to retire in the next 15 years – the UK is currently staring into a huge civil engineering chasm.

“Engineers are highly sought after and a career in civil engineering can be deeply rewarding with opportunities to work on so many different types of projects,” Savage says.

She’s not wrong – with an estimated 250,000 civil engineering jobs in the offing over the next ten years, many requiring at least Level 3 (A level) skills, never has there been a more opportune time to consider a career in this discipline – at junior, apprenticeship or graduate level.

Biomedical engineering

Biomedical engineering is a rapidly evolving interdisciplinary field that applies engineering principles and technology to medical and biological problems. With an aging global population and rapid innovations in medical technologies, there is a surge in demand for biomedical engineers to enter the workforce and advance the field of healthcare, environment and energy. It’s also an area that encourages entry from both graduate and apprenticeship levels.

Having realised that he wasn’t enjoying his A-level courses, Charlie Brown is now undertaking a four-year advanced medical engineering apprenticeship in partnership with Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust and its training partner JTL. He is learning how to maintain and service critical hospital equipment such as X-ray machines and linear accelerators used for radiotherapy treatment.

“I really enjoy spending time in different hospitals – it means that no two days are the same and there’s lots of variety,” says Brown. 

“I work as part of a large team and there’s always somebody to offer their advice. The apprenticeship also enables me to gain skills and recognised qualifications without getting myself into debt.”

During the first two years of his apprenticeship Charlie attended Kirklees College in Huddersfield on a day release basis and successfully completed a Level 3 BTec in electrical and electronic engineering.

“As part of my apprenticeship I’ve now been able to start a Foundation degree in healthcare science. This will take two years to complete, but within the next year I will also have built up enough experience to start applying for jobs in medical engineering.” 

Joshua Stephensen also chose to take the apprenticeship route.

“I studied A levels in IT, electronics and product design before applying for university – but when a friend told me about the apprenticeships available in the NHS I decided to apply,” he says. “It was a tough choice between accepting my university place and starting an apprenticeship but the prospect of a job if I was successful was the deciding factor.”

Stephensen started a medical engineering technician apprenticeship at Barnstaple Hospital, North Devon, where he was responsible for repairing vital hospital equipment, chasing repairs and scheduling preventative planned maintenance on the wards. He also completed training courses with major medical engineering companies including Phillips, B-Braun, Baxter, Welch Allyn, and Mckinley – allowing him to build up a working knowledge of their equipment so he could repair it. 

Now a full-time medical engineering technician at North Devon District, Hospital Stephensen is continuing to work his way up.

“All my hard work during the apprenticeship was worth it and now the hospital is paying for my HNC course in electrical and electronic engineering. It’s mainly theory-based and I will gain a qualification at the end of it. I’m sticking with the NHS for the foreseeable future – I really love where I work and the people I work with.”

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