A recent report on LinkedIn has highlighted engineering as one of the top roles recruiters will be looking to fill in 2017.
While the government continues to invest heavily in this area, Rullion looks at why there is still such a discrepancy between engineering roles and candidate numbers and what the solutions are for filling these roles long term.
Key to the health of the UK economy, British engineering has long been seen as some of the best in the world.
A potted History
Offering a wide variety of roles, from mechanical engineers, to physical scientists to design development agents, the sector incorporates a range of industries - utilities, electronics, oil and gas, military. It has seen the growth of the likes of BAE, Rolls Royce, Jaguar, British Airways and BP.
However, last century the sector took a dip. Young people were not entering the ‘blue collar’ world of engineering roles at the rate they once had. In 1977, the government held an enquiry, which resulted in the Finniston Report, to address the concerns that engineering had a low status in the UK. One of the main recommendations of the report was that universities should offer more specified engineering degrees as opposed to the more general science degrees, and that more women should be encouraged to take up careers in this sector. The report led to the formation of the Engineering Council in 1982 and WISE (Women into Science and Engineering) in 1984.
A shift in attitudes took place and a number of changes were made over the next few decades.
Where engineering was once entered through a science degree, there are now a number of entry routes into engineering as a career, whether through a work-based apprenticeship, a degree or college course - in a range of subjects.
The industry has been opened up and made more accessible, by being promoted (quite rightly) as a more desirable career choice, with salaries increasing accordingly in certain sectors. Companies such as Jaguar Land Rover are offering lucrative graduate roles which can set applicants up with a career for life.
However, as recently as 2014, STEM sectors in the UK were still seen as in crisis. Engineering, IT, construction, medical and accounting were all in the top 10 industries with the most graduate vacancies to fill. Nick Boles, the then Minister for Skills, was quoted as saying: “These shortages are compounded by insufficient numbers of young people, especially girls, choosing a career in engineering.” The recent public struggles of Rolls Royce and previously Rover and Jaguar, as well as the oil industry, have not helped to solidify engineering as a place that’s around to stay, however they have so far come back fighting.
Despite the best efforts a few decades previously, engineering roles were still not appealing to young people. The answer at the time was government investment to the tune of £204m, given in contributions to universities across the country. A renewed focus throughout the education sector pushed these subjects and careers, to females in particular. While changes are being made, there is still some way to go. In 2016, job site CV Library listed engineering as the sector with the most graduate jobs to fill (1,204 jobs at the time, compared to 534 in medical and 533 in marketing).
Things can’t change overnight, but the fact is that there is still a huge amount of roles in engineering, and not enough people to fill them.
A survey by The Engineer in 2015 revealed that 84% of working engineers are keen to remain in their current industry; with more than half saying they are happy in their jobs.
Why is there a skills gap?
The salaries are a sticking point for some; according to research by the University of Warwick, the relative dearth in candidates is due to wages, although high profile public companies offer larger salaries from entry level, smaller privately owned companies just can’t match. The University concluded that many graduates of engineering and STEM subjects were being lured by more short-term lucrative options - with investment banks, for example. Taking roles like this does not make use of their skills, but can set them up financially earlier in life allowing some to go back into engineering having fewer strains on the financial side.
As technology improves and increases so does the variety of roles available, which might make the overall situation harder to quantify. Alongside the more traditional engineering roles, the sector now encompasses tech roles, and therefore has grown to include massive international brands such as Google, Microsoft and Siemens. Add these to the wealth of construction companies currently building in all our major cities and you have a massive amount of jobs waiting to be filled, with a wide range of skillset needs and varied packages available.
There is also a well documented ageing workforce, seen by many as the biggest threat to economic growth. Skills are seen as being lost or outdated, with a lack of young people taking the traditional route of apprenticeships into engineering roles and ‘learning on the job’. Certain job roles and skill sets are no longer seen as worth pursuing with easily available technology, leading to skills and knowledge not being passed on. The government’s forthcoming Apprenticeship Levy will force large engineering firms to tackle this head on, hiring apprentices and ensuring that training is a priority, in order to continue moving the industry forward.
What does the future hold?
The roles that recruiters are looking to fill are across the entire scope of graduate, senior, technical and practical. These issues have been recognised, and while the drive to get more young people, particularly women, into STEM has yet to yield huge results, changes do seem to be afoot.
We only have to look to the US. Despite huge efforts towards gender equality over the last century, only 14% of professionals working in engineering in America are women (source: Congressional Joint Economic Committee). This statistic is all the more striking when we consider that women make up just under half of the entire US workforce (47%).
However, there has been some growth there too. The number of female engineering students is on the rise and general engineering is now considered by more than 20% of female students, a 16% rise over seven years up to 2014.
As more women join and become ambassadors for an industry, more will aspire and imitate. The changes will gain some momentum. According to The Guardian, engineers have the happiest jobs in the world. With reasons cited by its respondents including freedom, fresh challenges, working in a team and a relatively good wage.
The encroaching skills gap has been on some companies’ radars for a long time and some already have initiatives in place to fill these roles.
Dyson and United Utilities have programs in place which allow individuals whose circumstances would not normally allow them to go into higher education gain higher education and skills. These programs extend the reach of those who are able to study engineering.
Dyson has created the ‘Dyson Institute of Technology’ in the UK, which offers 25 students a four year course in a bid to bridge the gap for engineering graduates. By taking this approach Dyson will create its own home-grown engineers who are engrained into the Dyson brand. It also builds a competitive Employer Value Proposition (EVP) and employee loyalty which is enviable in the current market.
And UU is another company opening its roles out to untapped market. Beginning its Work Program in September 2014, United Utilities interviewed and selected12 unemployed adults from the local area who had backgrounds which meant that they needed extra support to get them into paid roles. The Work Program worked alongside Rullion and supported these individuals to develop skills with CV help and interview practice. Out of the 12 individuals selected nine were offered permanent places at the end of the program.
As the skills gap and costs of University continue to increase, more organisations with the resources should be creating ways to fill these roles in new ways and from new markets. Taking Dyson and United Utilities as examples, both have filled roles with people who are nurtured into their ways specific industry and company, learning on the job and beginning their careers without student debts.
Traditional methods to increase the number of engineering students has only made limited progress, but at the current rate of progress this will take many decades and does not address the short term skills shortage. Instead, alternative strategies are required to directly target new markets of potential engineers. Recruitment processes such as those of Dyson and United Utilities appear to work, but there needs to be more efforts like these to close the skills gap and fill the roles available.