Engineering has a vital role to play in the UK's economic and societal wellbeing. But attracting, recruiting and retaining highly-skilled engineering talent continues to present a major challenge for the industry - with a recent report from Engineering UK highlighting an estimated 59,000 annual shortfall of graduates and technicians to fill core engineering roles.
There are also concerns that the UK's current educational and training initiatives may be serving to merely plug the skills gap rather than helping to build a rich reservoir of engineering capability.
So what needs to be done to encourage greater numbers of well-educated, well-trained and well-motivated candidates to join the engineering industry - and perhaps more importantly, to stick around?
Attracting and retaining engineering talent
The National Centre for Universities and Business (NCUB) has recently announced the findings of the first phase of its research project - 'Talent 2050: Engineering Skills and Education for the Future'.
The project began by consulting with leaders in the public and private sectors, education and professional bodies, researchers and early career stage professionals - and it has identified what it describes as critical 'barriers and bottlenecks' to the creation, support and retention of the UK's engineering talent.
According to the Talent 2050 report, the focus on fixed qualification requirements (such as A-level maths or physics) can be perceived as an obstacle for some candidates.
And it suggests that there could be value in developing an enrolment or recruitment strategy that focuses not just on an individual's previous record of educational achievement but on his or her ability to acquire new skills.
Encouraging diversity within engineering also remains a key issue, with women, ethnic minorities and the disabled continue to be under-represented within engineering.
Recent figures indicate that women make up just 12% of the total engineering workforce and ethnic minorities just 8%. - while a House of Commons briefing paper published in May 2019 revealed that only 11.2% of apprenticeship starts in 2017/2018 were taken up by people with disabilities.
Digital and environmental literacy
Despite the recognition of the importance of encouraging greater emphasis on the development of digital and environmental skills, including AI, the report suggests that more work needs to be done to ensure this knowledge is fully integrated at regional and national level.
While candidates may often be practically or educationally qualified, there is a concern amongst some employers of a lack of 'soft skills' (communication, leadership, adaptability, teamwork, problem-solving etc) that can play a significant role in enhancing employability.
For now at least, it would appear that the industry demand for candidates with science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) skills isn't currently being fulfilled by the UK education system.
And while the focus on STEM initiatives, educational programmes and work-based training schemes hopes to grow the supply of suitable talent, there is a very real concern amongst industry leaders that these benefits are being outweighed by the challenges of demographic trends and migration.
The first stage of Talent 2050 has identified some key issues which will continue to be explored in Phase 2 of the project, including:
- Seeking out opportunities for collaboration and increased sharing of resources across the public sector, educational institutions and employers.
- Considering how different approaches to education, such as work-based learning, could help to tackle the issue of improving employability skills.
- Placing greater value on practical achievements (and potentially rethinking the current academic requirement for apprentices.)
The Talent 2050 study highlights the importance of encouraging greater participation from a more productive and diverse workforce by focusing not just on the attainment of qualifications but on each candidate's attitude, motivation and potential.
It also emphasises the value of harnessing the talents of those who are already in the workplace - both within and outside of the engineering sector - with the aim of up-skilling, retraining and capitalising on complementary skills.
And, perhaps above all else, the project stresses the importance of taking action now.
It takes twenty years, say the report's authors, to guide a generation through early years education to gradation.
So even if we hope to resolve the problem by as early as 2050, then that leaves just ten years for the engineering industry to identify what works and to put those new measures in place.