Employers look to new employees to introduce complex skills

Survey shows STEM skills still in short supply

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The IET’s Skills Survey shows that companies at least now recognise where their digital weaknesses are. ‘New technologies’ such as AI, quantum and data analysis all feature highly on the wish lists of engineering organisations.

As the sluggish post-pandemic rebound combines with the economic drag of rising inflation, the Brexit hangover and a global energy crisis, the engineering employment market should be a perfect storm. And yet, salaries in the technology sector are continuing to rise, while on the job market demand for tech talent is outstripping supply. Almost half of filled vacancies are ‘ghosted’ by candidates receiving better offers, and six-figure salaries are becoming commonplace. Also, the same personnel increasingly want to work remotely.

This picture is drawn using findings from online technology talent recruitment consultant hackajob, whose inaugural annual Marketplace Monitor presents an analysis of thousands of jobs based in the UK (including global remote hires) in an effort to understand technical talent and the sector’s hiring trends over the past 12 months. According to the hackajob report, the good news is that the UK currently has a ‘vibrant’ tech job market. Despite recession fears, UK companies are maintaining spending on tech salaries, finding the money by making cutbacks in other budget areas.

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But it’s not all good news for graduates taking their first steps in the profession. Marketplace Monitor reveals that the UK tech industry is failing to deliver on its D&I (diversity and inclusion) targets, while women’s salary expectations remain lower than those of their male counterparts. Meanwhile, competition for tech roles is highlighting the need “for better UK education and training. If the UK is going to compete it needs to help people get the training they need to join the continuing tech revolution.”

Understanding employment in the technology sector is more complex today than it once was, as it no longer comes down to analysing data from manufacturers and engineering services providers. As hackajob CEO Mark Chaffey explains: “Every company is now a technology company.” Including his own: hackajob uses AI to match registered applicants with tech companies, focusing on areas such as skills, diversity and inclusion. Clients range from retailers “looking to sharpen their online offering”, to banks boosting security, “or a football team pursuing better performance data”. He also thinks that employers need to recalibrate their approach to how they deliver a workplace experience that meets today’s ‘benefit demands’ and wellbeing concerns (see box ‘Do the hustle’).

While it might be expected that recruiters would apply the high gloss finish, others are more guardedly optimistic about the sector’s future. The chief executive of Engineering UK, Hilary Leevers, says “we know that the science, technology, engineering and maths  (STEM) sector will offer hundreds of thousands of valuable opportunities for good quality, secure employment. With the government focus on developing the UK as a leader in science and net-zero and the policy of ‘building back better’, careers in STEM and engineering will be a reliable choice.”

But Leevers also sees problems on the timeline ahead of the recruitment phase, as schools struggle “to deliver comprehensive careers support, including access to independent and professional advice”. She sees one of the challenges as “how we make sure young people know what they need to do to get into these careers and that more are inspired to do so. All young people, irrespective of their gender, ethnicity, socio-economic background or other characteristics, should be aware of and open to considering a career in STEM.” It’s an issue that needs addressing with urgency, she says. “This includes ensuring that all young people have access to good quality STEM careers provision throughout their schooling, and beyond.”

Whether market entrants are still at school or actively seeking to launch their careers post-university, central to the sector’s long-term prospects is digital skills availability. Employer attitudes in this area are regularly surveyed by the IET, which has just published its Skills for a Digital Future Survey, conducted during autumn 2022 and drawing on a sample of 1,235 senior decision-makers in engineering employers. After sifting through the data, the accompanying Digital Skills report (prepared on behalf of the IET by YouGov) concludes that there is “an education exercise to be done across engineering and technology employers when it comes to digital skills”. An exception is the IT/comms sector, which “generally has a stronger understanding of the range and specifics of digital skills than other engineering industries. As might be expected, their description of ‘digital skills’ is more specific than other sectors and half say that most of their staff work with AI.”

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Which means that not much has changed since the IET’s 2021 Skills Survey, which concluded that “less than half of new engineering recruits have either the necessary technical or soft skills needed for work within the industry”. As a result, it is not difficult to see why the tech sector is now offering increasingly attractive packages to prospective employees (see box ‘Engineering with benefits’). As the current YouGov report states: “Specialist digital skills are said to be lacking in both employers’ engineering and technical workforce and the wider labour market. More broadly, almost half report internal gaps in any level of IT skills or in adapting to new technologies – key skills for the transition to digital technologies.”

The IET survey indicates that missing out on key digital skills decreases productivity. One respondent broke down the issue as follows: “Failure to fully optimise productivity gaps in understanding of manufacturing process, business technology and abilities falling behind competitors, difficulties in introducing new products and manufacturing techniques.” Half of the respondents said they had a strategy to embed new technologies and digital skills but, even with a strategy in place, most need to bring in extra talent to deliver it.

Engineering employers with a digital skills strategy said their delivery window is within two years and they are “getting the digital skills in now, before they ‘fall behind’.”

A promising trend is that “nearly all engineering employers are providing some form of training to support their employees’ technical skills. Most look inward for this training; providing it on-the-job or as part of an in-house development programme. However, half do think that a professional organisation/training body would be well placed to deliver technical training.”

Trends in expectations surrounding digital skills appear to follow the maturity of the technologies themselves. Employers tend to see digital skills as “proficiency in IT, basic computer and data analysis”, with an expectation that staff will be familiar with using computers and other electronic devices. But there is lower uptake of newer digital technologies such as automation, AI or mixed reality. Engineers are expected to be familiar with cloud computing and data security, while skills in other technologies such as AI, extended reality and quantum engineering are seen as “more important in five years’ time than they are now”.

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Engineering employers’ understanding of their future skills needs also tends to focus on what is “immediately or obviously relevant for their industry”. In the construction industry, employers “are anticipating environmental skills to be important in the near future, while IT/communications employers are focused on future needs in cloud computing, AI and data analytic skills”.

Despite this increased awareness of growth areas and skills shortfalls, “engagement with various innovation initiatives could be improved. Around one in three engineering employers have engaged with an Institute of Technology, but a similar proportion have not interacted with any innovation programme.” The report speculates that this could be why the UK’s second-most desired government activity to improve digital skills (after additional funding) “is simply improved support/training for priority areas”.

When it comes to future requirements in the engineering sector, we’re left with a case of supply and demand. Industry, as the IET data exposes, has a pressing need of an upskilled workforce, while the recruitment sector is poised to fill vacancies that come along. For the right candidates presenting relevant digital skills that fill the gaps identified by employees, the rewards could be rich indeed.


Do the hustle

If you’re working harder for longer, taking fewer breaks and becoming frustrated that all this exertion is delivering nothing in terms of productivity improvement, you could well be toiling in what workplace experts are now calling ‘toxic hustle culture’. A key factor in the hustle is pressure: pressure to work harder and to make more money for your organisation. As Mike Delaney, addiction expert at Delamere rehab clinic, says: “Feeling like we are not doing enough leads to a decrease in productivity, as we have unrealistic expectations for ourselves. This causes burnout and, if we don’t rest our bodies, they will do it for us.”

While it’s tempting to assume that one of the main triggers of hustle would be the pressure of working in public-facing contexts, a recent survey by Delamere shows that manufacturing is the second worst sector for hustle culture out of 15 industries examined, beaten (if that’s the right word) only by ‘mining, energy and water supply’. Scoring only 17.7 out of a possible 60, the manufacturing industry displays several ‘disappointing’ results in areas such as health and wellbeing, work-life balance and stress in the workplace. By comparison, the education and construction industries scored around 30 apiece. With an average annual salary of £31,676, manufacturing also ranked 7th lowest on pay.

Advisory board member at Delamere, Professor Sir Cary Cooper says that rankings such as these can’t be addressed with the cosmetic ‘quick fixes’ he describes as “bean bags and ping pong tables”. He states that employees want genuine perks or benefits that have “a meaningful impact on their quality of life”, such as  optional work-from-​home initiatives. 


Engineering with benefits

It may sound too good to be true, but new engineers might never have had it so good. As hackajob’s Mark Chaffey says, for employers to attract the best talent, not only do “salary offerings need to reflect the rising costs of living”, but there needs to be a “strategy reset” when it comes to perks and benefits. “Think private health, dental care, topped up pensions and more annual leave. These are the popular benefits demands of today.”

Google says it provides “Googlers and their loved ones with a world-class benefits experience, focused on supporting their physical, financial, and emotional wellbeing. Our benefits are based on data and centred around our users: Googlers and their families.” Flexible hours, student loan reimbursement, four ‘work from anywhere’ weeks per year, childcare, transgender advocacy and bonuses are just a few of the benefits on offer.

Challenger bank Monzo targets its online-only fintech platform at the under-34 segment, while tailoring its employee benefits to suit a similar demographic. Its parental leave package goes way beyond statutory compliance thresholds. Employers can expect to benefit from a £1,000 annual learning budget to support personal development, as well as access to health insurance schemes through AXA and Medicash. Couch-surfing platform Airbnb incentivises its office-based workers with free food and drink throughout the day while providing approximately £2,000 a year to spend on a trip to any Airbnb listing worldwide.

But it’s not just the package on offer that counts. When looking to hire, employers must move fast, says Chaffey. “Companies need to pin down talent in this competitive landscape. The average time to hire using our platform is 21 days, and often happens quicker than this. If you find great talent, make an offer and work hard to secure them... and quickly.”

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