UK’s Engineer Shortage Can Be Fixed!
An interesting article from the Telegraph on how and why there is a shortage of UK Engineers…
A year ago tomorrow, the Perkins Review called for urgent action to address the UK’s chronic shortage of engineers. “If we are to compete in the global race,” argued the report’s distinguished author, “we need to equip our people with the skills to adapt, innovate and flourish.”
Prof Perkins’s concerns about the UK’s scientific and engineering prowess are nothing new. In fact, as a nation we’ve been worrying about the state of science and engineering for almost 200 years. In 1830, Charles Babbage, father of the computer – back then they were steam-powered – published his Reflections on the Decline of Science in England. He lamented that the UK, previously “eminently distinguished for its mechanical and manufacturing ingenuity,” was in real danger of falling behind other nations. The reason? Its failure adequately to support science.
In the long years since Babbage made his observations, considerable resources – both intellectual and financial – have been channelled towards addressing the nation’s shortfall of skilled scientists and engineers. In the past 10 years alone, there have been six major reports on the problem. Yet, the UK is still far from being able to say “job done”. When I ask other business leaders what concerns them, the difficulty of recruiting people with the right technical skills sits firmly at the top of the list.
This is a critical issue for businesses. British companies need more and more scientists and engineers, but they’re having to fish in an ever smaller talent pool. In some cases, they simply cannot find the skills they need – with serious implications for companies’ bottom lines, for their ability to grow, and, ultimately, for the ability of UK plc to flex its muscles globally.
Every year, the UK faces a shortfall of over 81,000 people with engineering skills in the workforce. As things stand, that means we need to double the number of entrants into engineering across all levels of qualification. In the case of the energy sector, we face a particular challenge, because many of our most experienced engineers and scientists are set to retire in the coming years. That’s just at the moment when, as an industry, we face the dual challenge of meeting rising global energy demand and responding to the pressing threat from climate change.
Understanding exactly what is causing the shortage of skilled engineers, scientists and technicians coming out of the UK is a complex task. But we do know the problem starts at school. The plain truth is that there aren’t enough young people studying the right STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects to enable them to pursue a career in science or engineering. And despite all the initiatives to encourage and inspire young people, the talent pipeline is in danger of running dry.
Why? It’s partly because the myriad programmes designed to address this issue are often fragmented and unco-ordinated. Some schools benefit from multiple activities, others receive none. To put it in blunt business terms, the UK’s approach to STEM uses an inefficient delivery model and delivers a poor return on investment. No viable business would run its operations in such a manner.
But that doesn’t mean we can or should give up. There are things we can do to improve that delivery model – and boost our return on investment.
Firstly, we need a new, more collaborative approach. Business, government and the engineering community need to stop launching programmes in isolation and instead coordinate their efforts.
The Perkins Review recommended that the most effective way for business to address the STEM challenge is to coordinate activities through the Tomorrow’s Engineers programme. This national initiative aims to give every 11- to 14-year-old first-hand engineering experience with local employers. Today, Vince Cable, the Business Secretary, and I are joining EngineeringUK to launch a week of activities to highlight its merits.
The Tomorrow’s Engineers programme helps students connect what they learn in the classroom with the world around them and with opportunities offered by a career in engineering. For example, figures show that girls who participate in the programme are 50pc more likely to see engineering as an attractive career choice. It’s a proven model that reached more than 50,000 students in over 1,200 UK schools last year.
Those are impressive numbers – and the reason Shell is investing over £1m in Tomorrow’s Engineers over the next three years. That investment will enable the programme to reach a further 500 secondary schools.
I urge other companies which aren’t already involved, and the wider engineering community, to join us in making Tomorrow’s Engineers the focal point for coordinating STEM activity. With such support, the initiative will make a real difference and benefit businesses large and small.
Government has an important role to play too. I applaud recent initiatives like the Your Life campaign which highlights the opportunities that careers in science, technology and engineering can offer. At Shell, we’d like to see more support for training specialist teachers and for providing more labs and equipment for teaching science and technology; simple steps which would perfectly complement Tomorrow’s Engineers.
Finally, it’s crucial that these government campaigns are coordinated with wider industry efforts. Over the past few years, we’ve seen what can only be termed STEM “initiativitis”: multiple projects with multiple goals managed by multiple parties. But this scattergun approach doesn’t work. There’s growing recognition that the last thing we need is more isolated initiatives. We need to work better together, to be greater than the sum of our parts. The Tomorrow’s Engineers programme is a clear, practical example of how we can do just that.
We need young men and women to seriously consider a career in the STEM subjects. Making that happen may be a huge challenge, but the rewards on offer are massive. Get it wrong and we’ll all feel the effects. Get it right and our young people won’t just have the skills they need to get great jobs, they’ll be pioneers of UK innovation; they’ll create new, cutting-edge products and they’ll help a modern, self-confident, well-equipped UK become a stronger competitor in world markets.