For many years, it has been acknowledged around the world that there is a skills shortage in engineering; that there just aren't enough engineers required to finish large-scale investments of local, national, and international significance.
Infrastructure projects such as new airports, schools, and hospitals, as well as power and water systems, are being hampered by a dearth of skilled engineers and technicians flowing via the talent pipeline. But it's not just "conventional" positions in civil, mechanical, electrical, and aeronautical engineering; there's also a growing demand for multidisciplinary engineers working in renewable technologies, robotics, additive manufacturing, industry digitalisation, and 6G networks, to mention a few.
The 2020 Global Engineering Capability Review acknowledged that the engineering skills gap will have an impact on sectors of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals such as renewable energy, sustainable cities, and climate action. The research, commissioned by the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Lloyd's Register Foundation, found that while engineering was an important lever for countries to fulfil UN goals, it could not be done without a sufficient pool of individuals with the necessary capabilities.
While historically most engineers were produced in developed countries such as the United Kingdom, Germany, and the United States, recent trends show that a considerable number of engineers are being developed in rising countries such as Russia, India, and Iran. This has an effect on where engineering is happening around the world, with different countries pushing and drawing engineers to their projects, leaving a shortage in other countries.
According to the European Commission's 2019 Labour Shortages and Surpluses Report, building and engineering skills are among the most in demand in Europe. They listed civil, mechanical, electrical, and software engineers as occupations with a major shortage of trained professionals — not only due to falling numbers entering the European education system, but also due to a lack of applications from outside the union.
This global talent war exacerbates the issue of a skills deficit, as governments continue to need to expand infrastructure, power systems, and get ahead on other engineering projects — yet are unable to fill the posts. EngineeringUK has been tracking the annual demand for engineers and technicians in the United Kingdom in order to keep up with infrastructure and other engineering projects. They estimate that 203,000 roles are needed each year, with 124,000 engineers and technicians with core engineering abilities and 79,000 associated roles requiring a combination of engineering knowledge and other skill sets such as project management.
Identifying the root causes of the engineering skills shortage.
While the demand is evident, the reasons for this are more complicated — a crucial one relates to the makeup of the current workforce. The average age of an engineer varies depending on the technical specialty; in the United Kingdom, it is in the mid-50s. This means that many will retire within the next decade or two, leaving a big employment gap that the sector will have to fill in some way. On the opposite end of the scale, there is a shortage of engineering and technical graduates, as well as apprentices coming from schools, colleges, and universities. While felt most intensely in the United Kingdom, this combined threat can be seen in many countries throughout the world.
There isn't much that can be done about an ageing workforce other than strive to keep as many as possible for as long as feasible. With engineers in the UK having an average of 30 years of experience, there will be a massive knowledge transfer required before this wave of retirements begins. The absence of young individuals joining the industry, on the other hand, is an area where something can and (in some cases) is being done. Identifying the core causes of the skills deficit will be critical to finding a solution. It will not be easy or quick, and it will necessitate a collaborative effort from all parties. Let us investigate more.
There are three reasons why young people are not entering the industry in adequate numbers: a lack of awareness of what engineers perform, a misunderstanding of what engineering is, and a lack of opportunities for everybody to participate. In many respects, the school setting is where most young people will learn what engineering is and isn't. The decisions they make and the courses they take will establish the first talent pool from which corporations can recruit. As a result, it is critical that all young people have a thorough understanding of engineering job alternatives. Unfortunately, that is not the situation in the United Kingdom.
For example, over half of individuals aged 11 to 19 claim they know little or nothing about what engineers do. This is due, in part, to the fact that engineers are not highly visible in everyday life. Because they are present in their lives, most young kids can describe what a doctor, dentist, or teacher does. They clearly see teachers at school and would have visited a doctor or dentist as children – but they have probably never seen a professional engineer at work.
This lack of awareness is amplified by the fact that the majority of STEM teachers do not come from an engineering background and hence cannot speak with actual authority on the subject. Parents, too, frequently have a limited understanding of what engineering is and are thus unable to express the benefits of a job in that industry. Engineers' image has been further warped historically by representations of a dirty business dominated by males working unreasonable hours in terrible conditions - and this caricature has been fairly durable over time.
This takes us to the second issue: the misunderstanding of what engineering is. While some engineering jobs are plainly nasty and require tough conditions (think oil and gas engineers on a platform in the North Sea), the nature of modern engineering is such that that image should have broadened by now. The number of new engineering disciplines has expanded in recent decades, and as previously stated, employment in software engineering, robotics, and artificial intelligence (AI) are in great demand now and in the future. This alters the nature of engineering as well as where engineers operate – less on-site and more in an office. This necessitates the development of new skills and problem-solving expertise, which has been addressed by the government, educators, and industry.
Overcoming the engineer shortage
In an effort to address not only perception difficulties, but also to encourage more young people from various backgrounds to choose engineering as a future career, the United Kingdom designated 2018 as the "Year of Engineering." It was also intended to address the third concern stated above - ensuring equal opportunity for all.
The government and industry collaborated on a year-long campaign aimed at young people, their parents, and teachers. The campaign urged everyone to think about what engineering is and to combat prejudices through a series of activities, seminars, open houses, and general information flow.
Recent engineering firm attempts have also attempted to resolve the reality that historically, engineering has been more open to white males with university degrees. The lack of diversity in the profession was emphasised by a study conducted for the Year of Engineering, which revealed that the engineering workforce was just 6% ethnic minority and 9% female. The figures have altered marginally in recent years, with BAME engineers now accounting for 8% of the workforce and women accounting for 13%. Addressing the underrepresentation of women and people of colour in engineering will undoubtedly result in a larger talent pool.
To remedy the engineering skills deficit, it is vital to address the main causes: awareness, perception, and a lack of opportunity for all. Companies will simply lack the personnel to accomplish engineering projects if this is not done, and national economies would suffer as a result.
The answer, however, will include not only a shared understanding of the issues, but also a coordinated set of efforts by government, legislators, educators, and engineering firms. Some work has already been completed, but as previously said, this is a time-sensitive issue. With the UK's ageing workforce set to retire within the next decade or so, efforts must be stepped up to address the core reasons of a lack of young people to take their place.
Jonathan Lee Recruitment has been supporting engineering professionals and businesses nationwide for over 40 years, matching quality candidates with leading companies. We understand the current candidate shortage being felt across the board and we have the knowledge, experience and contact pool to help clients through challenging times. Click here for more information about our engineering recruitment services.