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It's not just conventional engineering skills that are in short supply at the moment but also the ever increasing demand for multi-disciplined engineers working in green and renewable technologies, robotics, additive manufacturing, digitalisation, and 6G networks is not being met as fewer engineers are entering the industry from STEM education and as the existing workforce ages out.
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 a critical factor for countries to achieve UN goals, it could not be done without a sufficient pool of individuals with the necessary skills and competence in the latest technologies.
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 economies including Russia, India, and Iran. This has meant that the skills and employment market has expanded and engineers have opportunities around the globe, often very well rewarded.
Brexit has also impacted the UK access to skills from Europe; before Brexit around 25-30% of our placements with our UK clients were of candidates who were non-UK nationals. This has dropped considerably since, with the new visa requirements acting as a limiting factor on Europeans wanting or being able to work in the UK.
According to the European Commission's 2019 Labour Shortages and Surpluses Report, construction 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.
1. Ageing out...
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 to bridge.
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 people 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.
2. Lack of STEM entrants
There are three main 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 the decisions they make early in their educational lives will affect their prospects later. It is so important 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 unpleasant conditions and more needs to be done to break this stereotype.
Engineering disciplines have expanded enormously in recent decades, and software engineering, robotics, and artificial intelligence (AI) skills are in great demand both now and will be for the future. This alters the nature of engineering as well as where engineers operate
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.
This exercise needs to be more than a 12 month programme. There needs to be a concerted, ongoing campaign to attract talented people to engineering.
Diversity is also a major factor in the future of engineering. It needs to be seen as a career for everyone so addressing the under-representation of women and people of colour in engineering will undoubtedly result in a larger talent pool. On the plus side, we have seen a steady increase in the number of women in engineering over the last decade but there is definitely more to do.
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 people they need to deliver engineering projects if this is not done, and national economies will suffer as a result.
A coordinated effort by government, legislators, educators, and engineering firms is needed and we are seeing more and more of these pop up in industry which is encouraging, but it is a time-sensitive issue and so an acceleration and renewal of efforts needs to be top of the agenda politically.
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.