Comment & Analysis

Addressing the skills gap: improving the image of engineering

Benjamin Mills-Wallace and Christian Young, Young Members Board

Solving the skills shortage problem in engineering and technology requires a unified approach from government, industry and academia
Solving the skills shortage problem in engineering and technology requires a unified approach from government, industry and academia

The engineering skills shortage has been one of the most widely discussed issues in recent years, with a considerable amount of resource being spent to fully understand the problem.

The most recent perspective on this is detailed in EngineeringUK’s flagship publication, Engineering UK: The State of Engineering. The 2018 publication of this report quantifies this problem, where it estimates that there will be an annual shortfall of up to 59,000 engineering graduates and technicians to fill core engineering roles. This shortfall increases even further when looking at broader engineering related roles, where it is estimated to be up to 110,000 roles.

Clearly this shortfall is unsustainable, especially with the number of jobs in engineering and technology ever increasing. However, looking at the problem this way is very one-dimensional, and doesn’t account for the different roles required at different levels. The recent cultural shift towards university education has resulted in the majority of high school students being encouraged down this route rather that considering other vocational options such as apprenticeships. This has resulted in an over-supply of graduates and a devaluing of qualifications. There is evidence that this is happening already, as more blue-chip engineering companies require a minimum 2:1 to apply and a master's degree is becoming the new norm for getting a top graduate role. Large engineering companies can help begin to fix this problem by realising that engineers at all levels are needed to address the skills shortage.

This problem can’t be solved by industry alone however; it requires both academia and government to also play their parts. One of the barriers to this happening is the public perception around engineering, with the understanding of what engineering is being generally limited. A study commissioned by the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Engineering and Technology Board in 2007 affirms this, with the results showing that engineering was difficult to define and often vague. The report attributes this to the often misuse of the word engineering in the UK, where it is used as an umbrella term describing other trades including technicians and repair work, i.e. mechanics. One way of correcting these misconceptions could be to protect the title of engineer, restricting its use to those holding relevant qualifications. This has been widely debated across the professional engineering institutions (PEIs), however it is usually argued that this would have little chance of success.

Despite this, some countries do have legal protections in place for using the term engineer, such as the US and Canada, although in these cases similar studies have shown that the public understanding of engineering is similarly low. Perhaps a way of preventing this in the UK is to not only protect the title of engineer, but also protect the title of technician, recognising them as different, but equally valuable roles.

Whilst it is generally accepted that an engineering job is favourably regarded, and that engineering has a positive impact on society, there is never much discussion on the benefits of being an engineer. For example, job prospects are generally high, and the mean starting salary for engineering and technology graduates is 18% higher than graduates overall. Furthermore, there are consistently high reports of job satisfaction and the skills developed from studying engineering are highly transferable. These benefits, if articulated to high school students, may make engineering more appealing.

Developments like this require teachers to have access to good careers information, something which is recognised as generally being poor. The Augar Review, which was an independent review published earlier this year looking at the status of Post-18 education and funding, recognised this as a concern. One of the recommendations to improve this position is to set up a series of national careers “hubs”, where students can access high quality information, advice and guidance on all jobs, careers, routes of learning and qualifications. This would certainly help inform students as to the different options available within the engineering sector, and may help promote the take-up of apprenticeships.

Regrettably the biggest challenge plaguing the engineering sector is the lack of diversity in the workplace. Women only account for 20.5% of all individuals employed within the engineering sector, and those from an ethnic minority represent only 8.1% of workers. The engineering sector is actively trying to increase the number of women who pursue STEM subjects at university; whilst there is evidence to show this is having some success, the situation is not improving quickly enough. The reason for this may be also be linked to the public perception of engineering, where young women are put off by the ageing male workforce within the industry.

The only way this will change is to rebrand the face of engineering, which government initiatives like the Year of Engineering are attempting to do. However this won’t happen overnight, and so more needs to be done to understand why certain groups of people are discouraged from pursuing a career in engineering.

Ultimately solving the skills shortage problem in engineering and technology requires a unified approach from government, industry and academia. As Young Members in engineering, we are the most influential in improving this position and will be the most affected. However the situation won’t improve by itself, and so all individuals within the industry have the responsibility of broadcasting what they do for a living and how they are improving the world through engineering. Only then will the public perception start to change and plant the seed that a career in engineering can be a positive and rewarding life choice.

Benjamin Mills-Wallace

Ben is a Principal Engineer for Core Structural Integrity at Rolls-Royce. In this role, Ben is responsible for the project management, technical direction and governance of a large irradiated material test programme. This programme runs until 2026 and aims to develop a better understanding of the formation and behaviour of different zirconium alloy microstructures. He is also a passionate STEM volunteer, having supported the national Big Bang Fair for several years to encourage young members to pursue careers in engineering, technology and science.


Christian Young

Christian is a Hub Manager at the University of Huddersfield. He manages the EPSRC Future Metrology Hub which is a £45m 7 year project based at the University of Huddersfield and with spokes at the Universities of Bath, Loughborough and Sheffield. His day job consists of project managing the research, business development and working with the academics to generate industrial impact from the research programme. His interest in the education field comes from the work I’ve done with the IMechE primarily on the Education and Skills Strategy Board.


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