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The great UK engineering shortage: 1.8 million are needed by 2025

Children looking through a microscope
Focus on engineering: the UK faces an unprecedented skills shortage CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK
 

The UK’s engineering industry is facing a skills shortage of unprecedented levels – if we need 1.8 million people trained by 2025, they can’t all be white males.

Children form ideas of “suitable” careers at a very young age, and parents, teachers and employers are not getting to them early enough, says the head of the not-for-profit employer-led skills organisation Semta.

Young children might already be turned off a career in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) before they even reach secondary school, and employers could do more to promote modern engineering.

“We need to be starting much earlier,” says Ann Watson, chief executive of Semta. “We need children of primary-school age to be given the opportunity to see what a modern cutting-edge engineering workplace looks like.”

While the Government has prioritised a focus on work experience for pupils aged 16 to 18, by then it’s often too late, she says. “So many young people who have an engineering skill and aptitude are lost to the sector because they’re not given that encouragement earlier.”

 
Promoting engineering: Semta chief executive Ann Watson CREDIT: GRAHAM FLACK

For years employers have warned of an acute shortage of skilled engineers at all levels, and EngineeringUK has recently said the country needs 1.8 million new engineers and technicians by 2025.

School children in many instances are not exposed to possibilities. While some schools include work experience in the school year it isn’t compulsory, and often engineering companies don’t take on pupils because of health and safety fears, she says.

But employers could also do more to convince teachers – whom many pupils look to for careers advice – that modern engineering offers rich career opportunities. “It’s not just about work placements,” says Ms Watson. “It’s even more important that at school they are not receiving negative messages about the sector.”

Employers have a lot on their plates at present, says Ms Watson. Brexit and a new Government add uncertainty at a time where companies are already adapting to a raft of new policies aiming to boost skills in the UK.

These include new apprenticeship legislation – an employer levy to boost numbers of apprentices – and the introduction of new standards for the work-based training. These changes also require employers to adapt, says Ms Watson, whose organisation hopes to support companies to take advantage of the shake-up.

For years employers have warned of an acute shortage of skilled engineers at all levels

The apprenticeship levy, she points out, can be used to train and develop existing employees as well as find new staff. “We want to help them get the best out of the new levy – if they don’t use it, they’ll lose it.”

Public perceptions need to change too, she says. While engineering employers are enthusiastic about apprenticeships, as are the apprentices themselves, it’s the parents who often don’t value this route. “This year, 98 per cent of industry apprentices said they were happy they’d done their apprenticeship,” she says. “The parents need to be more involved, too.”

Semta has urged the Government, which will publish a new careers strategy later this year, to involve parents more in helping children choose a path.

Numbers of young women embarking upon engineering apprenticeships also remain frustratingly low. “Lots of employers really do get the need to bring in more diverse talent,” says Ms Watson. “But changing a culture takes time.”

Many employers are introducing formal schemes to encourage diversity, and offering policies such as flexible working.

Semta supports the Asian Apprenticeship Awards and champions inspiring role models. In June, Semta will launch an apprenticeship diversity toolkit (in partnership with WISE and the Institution of Civil Engineers) where information and advice will provide employers with practical advice and support on how to improve their attractiveness to girls.

If the sector doesn’t change, it will face a skills crisis, says Ms Watson. “If we need 1.8 million people, they can’t all be white males.”

Discover more

Entry has now closed for the STEM Awards 2018. Good luck if you entered.

For more great articles, interviews and videos covering STEM subjects and beyond visit tgr.ph/stem.

on 29 March 2018
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