Engineering skills crisis: a multi-pronged problem
Image credit: Getty Images
What does the UK need to do to get more engineering skills? Just about everything.
When it comes to determining whether the UK has enough engineers to do the jobs it needs, there is no shortage of surveys that suggest it has to do a lot more to get them. Based on data from the British Chambers of Commerce, the Open University concluded in June 2022 that almost 90 per cent of large employers and more than two-thirds of small and medium-sized enterprises are facing skills shortages. The majority of employers said the shortages are piling pressure on staff and reducing output and profitability. In engineering specifically, the 2021 Skills Survey conducted by the IET found two-thirds of those questioned reported gaps they were having trouble filling.
Even before the Covid-19 pandemic hit, there were clear shortages according to several bodies and that has grown worse in the wake of Brexit causing both a fall in sterling that made wages less competitive and ultimately resulting in the UK leaving the EU’s free-movement zone, forcing all skilled foreign workers without settled status to apply for visas. On top of that, many workers headed back to their home countries amid a series of lockdowns. According to a report by the Economic Statistics Centre of Excellence, 1.3 million foreign-born workers left the UK during the pandemic.
“The situation right now is that there is a war for talent,” says Dan Hawes, co-founder of graduate-focused recruitment consultancy GRB. “That has put more power in graduates’ hands. They have more job offers than usual: there is no guarantee that someone with an offer will turn up. And it has hit the headlines recently that employers have stopped having a 2:1 requirement for degrees and instead switched to using more strengths-based assessments, which makes it possible for people without a 2:1 to show they have the skill sets that are needed.”
A big problem that the UK faces is understanding where the specific gaps are. Some industries that are winding down are laying off engineers who then cannot get work at those that are trying to staff up because they lack a specific set of skills.
“There just aren’t very many people around with the necessary experience [in advanced chip design],” says Graham Curren, CEO of design house Sondrel. “If you want people with experience in 5nm in the UK, where do you go? We have to export some work out of the UK.”
At the CBI’s annual conference in November, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak asked industry to identify where the gaps are when asked by a senior executive from Microsoft to do something about the shortage of engineers with the skills the company wants. “I think it’s kind of generic to say, well, we have pressure in IT jobs, right. But I need to know more specifically: it’s in cloud computing; it’s in data analytics. These are the specific things we need.”
Technology charity Nesta, however, argued before the pandemic that an analysis of skills needed across the country is something that an astute government would do to support industry. The organisation attempted to fill the gap temporarily using data analytics: computers combed through millions of job ads and attempted to match the requirements to a database of known skills, though the work was hampered by the noisy data inherent in job adverts. Seemingly related skills may be quite different in practice once you start to analyse the requirements of a specific sector.
Demand for similar data analytics is leading to big changes in the demand for skills even in sectors traditionally considered slow-moving, such as what Innovate UK calls “foundation industries”: those making cement, glass and chemicals.
Interviewed at a cohort event organised by Innovate UK in the summer, Su Varma, academic director of the R&D incubator at NSG Group’s Pilkington subsidiary, said: “We brought in a programme four years ago focused on using computational ways of discovering new materials for certain functions.” That started with a single post-doctoral graduate, he added. “It was so successful that within a year, I put another four PhDs on the programme and two of them will be purely computational: they are actually computer scientists.”
In other sectors, the rapid rise in demand for data-analytics skills has seen employers relax their demands for specific degrees. “We identified this need a few years ago. Companies are crying out for numerate people with data skills – and the degree wasn’t as important as the experience they could demonstrate,” says GRB’s Hawes.
Some companies are now looking to themselves to deal with the changes they need to make. The shift to electric vehicles (EVs) provided the impetus at ZF, a Germany-based automotive supplier with operations in the UK, as sales of EVs by its customers have increased against those that need the mechanical transmission it has traditionally supplied.
“ZF is reacting to this by refocusing the innovation budget on electrification,” says Stephan von Schuckmann, head of electrified powertrain division at ZF. That means finding more workers who can deal with mechatronics-type designs and setting up both an ‘e-cademy’, an online learning platform designed to bring staff up to speed on electrical-traction design, and a programme of internal apprenticeships that began with a pilot programme at its plant in Saarbrücken, Germany, which is now being converted to produce electric drives.
Statistics suggest ZF is in a minority when it comes to upskilling existing workers. A survey by the McKenzie-Delis Foundation, published in March 2022, found across all sectors just over 60 per cent of employers said, though they have specific measures in place to reduce age bias in recruitment, only 15 per cent have training geared toward older workers. Attempts by the government to encourage upskilling have not been met with widespread enthusiasm. A freedom-of-information request from online-learning specialist Emeritus to the Department for Education found the department had consistently underspent its budget since the launch of the Advanced Learner Loan Scheme in 2013, largely through a lack of demand according to the government. Emeritus claimed in May the size of the shortfall suggested the scheme could have helped 1.5 million more people.
Attitudes are shifting. The government has made progressively warmer noises about long-term education for the workforce. Sunak talked about the need to retrain and upskill workers at the CBI conference. “We also need to end once and for all this mistaken idea that learning is something you finish at 18,” he said. Opposition leader Keir Starmer similarly argued the country’s employers need to focus more on upskilling to wean themselves off seeing immigration as their main way to fill staffing gaps.
At the same time, in sectors such as engineering, employers have been wary of spending money on training and upskilling for fear of losing those workers to higher-paying competitors. At the WEF summit, Robert Moritz, global chairman of management consultancy PwC, pointed to “an inherent lack of trust between the employer and the employee” as a fundamental problem in this equation. But, he argued: “Skilling them has a multiplier effect. Upskilling gives people more confidence and research has shown it is the people lacking the skills who are more likely to leave.”
The demand for reskilling and upskilling has provided opportunities for providers of dedicated courses and publishers such as O’Reilly that have expanded from printing textbooks into delivering online tutorials, conferences and development sandboxes.
“As individuals we’re responsible for our own careers. I encourage everyone, not just engineers, to stay on top of the trends and technologies that will grow their skill set. Being a lifelong learner is the most important aspiration we can have for ourselves,” says O’Reilly president Laura Baldwin. “That said, technology continues to move increasingly quickly. To be competitive in today’s environment, organisations must ensure their employees are not only up to speed but also have the tools they need to help the business succeed. The responsibility for providing learning platforms, tooling, technologies and opportunities lies squarely on the shoulders of every employer.”
Even upskilling can only get organisations so far. Employers often point out that the numbers simply are not there when it comes to finding older engineers and others who could conceivably reskill. “The biggest problem is getting people into the industry in the first place,” says Sondrel’s Curren.
One step is to persuade more graduates to move into industry instead of other sectors such as finance. To get access to more scientists and engineers with computational-design skills, Pilkington is working more closely with universities. The company is encouraging more students to work on computationally focused projects. “They learn by being involved in the programmes. At the end of the three or four years of the course if we’re lucky they might work for us. If we’re not that lucky at least our guys will get skills out of it. We will be competing with the other foundation industries. Everybody’s going the digital route and there aren’t enough people in the country [to fill those roles],” Varma says.
The bigger step is to encourage schoolchildren to consider STEM for future careers ahead of the point at which they pick their GCSE subjects. Even museums now see they have a role to play here. At the end of November, the museum at the sprawling collection of buildings at the Brooklands racetrack in Surrey held its first Innovation Academy event, attended by children from four schools in the area, using a format derived from the summer-schools programme co-founded by Professor Brian Cox and Lord Andrew Mawson.
In a former workshop next to Barnes Wallis’s Stratosphere Chamber at Brooklands, children used paper plates, straws and tape to build lunar-lander mockups and dropped them from head height to see if they flipped over as they descended. Outside, Kingston University’s ‘lab in a lorry’ was introducing students to medical and chemical concepts.
Former primary schoolteacher and now a STEM-outreach intern at Kingston, Joseph Thornton says the focus of the lorries and a centre at the campus in south-west London is on disadvantaged children and encouraging them to consider careers in the sector and “also to say, ‘is the university path right for you?’”. On top of that, the group is trying to attract adults to a new career, though the focus is primarily on people approaching their twenties who missed out on A-levels. “There is no-one who is less likely to go to university,” Thornton says.
The Brooklands Innovation Academy is just one event amid summer schools and an ongoing programme of outreach work by some of the country’s big employers. Full-time STEM ambassadors at a large engineering employer such as Airbus may go to five events at schools and other locations each week, working alongside organisations such as the UK Electronics Skills Foundation in trying to promote science and engineering as creative career options.
If employers and educators expect these different programmes to create a pipeline of willing job applicants there is little in the way of longitudinal studies to confirm it. But there remain questions as to how ready industry itself is to handle a greater influx in an environment where companies seem to want both fresh faces and experience. The same push for efficiency that led to the fragility of supply chains being exposed during the pandemic seems to have helped engender a similar fragility in staffing.
The Open University reported it received unprompted feedback from some of its respondents, who claimed that the pressure on existing staff had made it hard for them to find time to train new people. A similar effect has been seen with Advanced Learner Scheme. Despite the financial incentive that comes from the money levied on larger businesses, only around half the money is being used, according to the Institute of Student Employers, though the usage varies across industries. Engineering employers spend two-thirds of theirs on average but digital and IT less than 40 per cent.
“Apprenticeships are great but what we are experiencing within industry is the administrative burden of taking them on. We are reaching an ageing population within industry. There is a shortage of experienced design, equipment and process engineers within [our] industry,” said Jillian Hughes, director of the National Microelectronics Institute, at a hearing organised by the House of Commons Business Committee in the summer. “Although companies would like to take on more apprentices or graduate apprentices, they are struggling because they have to provide hands-on training in that environment. Would they like to take on more younger people? Absolutely – but do they have the bandwidth to do it? They do not at this moment in time.”
Though the direction of travel feels to have changed, with a much greater focus on building a home-grown pool of expertise, it is worth bearing in mind we are at the high watermark of the skills-requirement cycle. With recessions looming in the US and other countries as well as the UK, the short-term rhetoric could change sharply. Moritz’s trust deficit may make a sudden comeback even if the longer-term trajectory that employers embrace is that investing in people is what they should be doing, rather than just embracing it as a slogan.
Two-speed education on the way to 2040
When the Covid-19 lockdowns started, Brooklands Museum faced a problem: with no visitors, how would it survive and what was it meant to do?
“The museum is a charity and doesn’t get any regular funding, and our income stream dried up,” says Tamalie Newbery, director and chief executive of the former aerodrome and racetrack’s museum. That led to more searching questions. “Does it need to be here in 30 years’ time? We realised at that point, although some specific technologies were developed here, they are of more historic significance generally. The story of how people came together to break boundaries and achieve the stuff that happened here – the entrepreneurship and teamwork – that’s hugely relevant. McLaren, for example, saw this huge synergy between what happened at Brooklands and what they need to do to shape the future.”
Brooklands’ main response was to build a programme around the summer-schools programme aimed at children who are about to pick their GCSE subjects. A focus on interpersonal skills and teamwork is likely to shape the education of scientists and engineers more widely as they head into tertiary education. Traditional concepts of when and how people in technology and industry learn what they need to learn are breaking down.
Educators, not surprisingly, choose words like ’holistic’ and ’multi-disciplinary’ to describe what they see as the future as the old and frequently wrong conception of the lone inventor gives way to far more extensive teamwork. The need to get students to learn to cooperate with people from very different fields will go hand-in-hand with a need to cope with often highly specialised knowledge. But what knowledge?
Given the pace of change it seems dangerous to make predictions as to what the Class of 2040 will need to learn to work as engineers once they graduate. A little over two decades ago, fuzzy logic was all the rage in control engineering and electronics while neural networks were retreating into yet another winter for artificial intelligence (AI). The tables turned as the millennium got under way.
Today’s idea of tomorrow’s engineer is one who is at home using AI to drive extensive simulations and digital twins. It is hard to think of what might displace AI-assisted and accelerated digital simulation as an important component of the toolbox, but there is the chance it proves to be not up to the task that is required and makes way for something else over the next couple of decades.
“The duration of skills has reduced from ten years to five years,” Infosys CEO Salil Parekh claimed at an education and skills panel at the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting last spring.
Though individual skills might change, are the core concepts going to change radically in just 20 years? If you consider the two currently most fashionable topics, AI and quantum computing, both are remarkably similar at their core. That core is linear algebra.
Werner Heisenberg, Max Born and Pascual Jordan almost a century ago chose matrices as the best formulation they could find for the peculiarities of quantum behaviour. In similar fashion, the pioneers of artificial neural networks found tensors – the high-dimension extension of 2D matrices – the most computationally efficient to deal with the idea of pushing data through countless linked weights.
“Lots of things are very durable and don’t have to change all the time. Mathematics is not changing,” says Coursera CEO Jeff Maggioncalda. “I think a lot of traditional systems that maybe aren’t so agile should focus on those more durable transferable skills and complement it with a higher-velocity training platform for the tools that change fast.”
As e-learning becomes more embedded in students’ and workers’ lives, a lot will hinge on the ability and willingness of people to first learn the basics and then supplement them with more specific courses as life progresses. Whether employers will support them in that or expect them to take on the burden individually remains an open question.
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