Engineering skills shortage main concern with Brexit looming, says report

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Skills supply remains the major concern of the UK engineering sector especially with the pending Brexit, although the first optimistic signs can already be seen, according to the 2017 State of Engineering Report.

The engineering sector is responsible for 26 per cent of the UK’s GDP. In 2015, engineering businesses contributed £486bn to the UK economy, more than the combined contribution of the retail, wholesale, financial and insurance industries.

However, despite its obvious importance for the UK’s economic growth, the industry is facing some major hurdles that could hamper its future prosperity. The lack of skilled workers available in the market is the number one concern, according to the report published by professional organisation EngineeringUK.

According to estimates, the UK would need at least 20,000 extra students graduating from engineering disciplines every year in order to be able to meet the demand for engineering skills. These vacancies are currently filled by EU workers or other migrants. With the pending Brexit and the expected withdrawal of the UK from the European Single Market and the area of free movement, the businesses are concerned they might struggle to find the required talent.

The UK engineering universities enjoy an outstanding reputation, but mostly attract foreign students. Only 25 per cent of postgraduate engineering and technology degrees are currently awarded to UK citizens.

Engineering ranks relatively low as a career choice despite the good employment prospects and a starting salary of a graduate of £26,000, compared to an all-subjects average of £22,000.

The report also states that the engineering workforce is getting older, with the proportion of workers younger than 25 constantly decreasing over the past 10 years.

However, some positive signs can already be seen, suggesting the desirability of engineering as a career could improve in future. The number of engineering and technology first degrees awarded in 2014/2015 has increased by nine per cent compared to the previous year. In 2015, 108,000 young people started an engineering-related apprenticeship in England – the highest number in the past 10 years. The number of 11 to 16 year olds who would consider a career in engineering has risen from 40 to 51 per cent in the past four years.

However, efforts to attract more women to the industry have so far only had a very limited effect. The proportion of women in the engineering workforce remains low – less than one in ten. In schools, boys are 3.5 times more likely to study A-level physics in England, Wales and Northern Ireland than girls and five times more likely to gain an engineering and technology degree.

The engineering sector’s contribution to the GDP has grown by 2.3 per cent between 2014 and 2015. In 2015, the number of engineering enterprises in the UK grew by seven per cent compared to the previous year - to 650,000 - with London experiencing the highest growth rate.

To help the industry achieve its potential, the report’s authors recommend a widening of efforts focused on attracting more young people to STEM subjects. Further efforts to foster gender as well as ethnic diversity are also needed.

Almost 5.7 million people work in the engineering sector in the UK, representing approximately 19 per cent of the total employees of registered enterprises. About 80 per cent of registered engineering enterprises have four or fewer employees.

More than a half of all employees, however, work for an enterprise with over 100 employees.

In future, the sector will have to adjust to changes including increasing automation and the decreasing demand for low-skilled workers. The demand for high-skilled workers, on the other hand, is expected to grow.

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