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Two female engineers, hanging out in hard hats

Engineering industry confidence remains low; gender pay gap hurting staff levels

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Employers in several key sectors in the UK remain pessimistic about the country's economic prospects, according to a study. Meanwhile, the gender pay gap continues to undermine effective recruitment and retention of female staff.

UK employers remain pessimistic about prospects for the economy, in light of the stumbling Brexit transition, and are still having problems recruiting suitably qualified staff, a new study from the Recruitment and Employment Confederation (REC) has revealed.

Shortages of suitable candidates in the engineering, health and social care, and hospitality sectors are causing the most anxiety, said the REC study.

In a survey of 600 employers, half expressed concerns over being able to hire agency workers with the necessary skills.

Neil Carberry, chief executive of the REC, said: “Employers remain pessimistic about the longer-term economic outlook, but they are ready to invest in their own businesses to meet demand.

“Securing the Brexit transition period and a sensible approach to EU immigration to help deal with labour shortages will help to calm those economic fears. A deal will make sure that employers' confidence in their own business wins out.

“Without access to agency workers, key frontline services could be put under threat.”

In a similar IET survey of engineering firms in December 2017, three out of five of the 800 firms polled believed that trying to recruit suitably qualified staff was a barrier to their business prospects. The disturbing conclusion drawn for engineering in the UK was that the government’s flagship industrial strategy was doomed to fail if the UK did not solve its shortage of skilled engineers.

A year earlier, in 2016, in the immediate wake of the EU referendum result, the IET’s ‘2016 Skills and Demand in Industry’ report highlighted stark pessimism about the impact of Brexit on the engineering sector.

Sixty-two per cent of engineering employers at the time said that graduates don’t have the right skills for today’s workplace, while 68 per cent were concerned that the education system will struggle to keep up with the skills required for technological change.

Clearly, the skills issue for engineering firms is a long-term, ongoing problem. The situation is compounded by the severe gender pay gap between men and women working in the engineering sector.

According to research conducted by one of the UK’s largest accountantcy firms, men in engineering earn up to 30 per cent more than women in the same roles.

Hemel Hempstead-based SJD accountants analysed the salaries of male and females working in the engineering sector and found that females with job titles such as mechanical engineer or maintenance engineer earn almost a third less than males with the same occupation.

Derek Kelly, CEO of Optionis, which owns SJD Accountancy, said: “The gender pay gap has been a topic of increasing conversation, putting the difference in salary into real terms has been shocking.

“This information now highlights the genuine impact that this can have not only on employees but their families and long-term prospects.”

Increasing pressure has been put on businesses to disclose their gender pay gaps and redress the balance to aim for more equal pay. The gender pay gap has become a key conversation in recent years in the media and in government.

As if the gender pay gap wasn’t enough of an issue for engineering and technology firms, there is also the question of diversity. Speaking at the EEF conference in February 2018, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn highlighted the fact that while women now account for 43 per cent of Britain’s overall GDP, only 8 per cent of professional engineers are female.

He said that women and girls are not being given the chance to enter the engineering sector from an early age, which is negatively impacting productivity. Labour would bring in education reforms to change this situation.

Corbyn accused the Conservative government of doing little to change this, citing the fact that the proportion of female engineers has remained static, while there has actually been a decline in those working in high-tech industries since the Conservative party took power in 2010.

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