Engineering skills shortage – it’s time for a makeover?

Here’s a ‘comment’, taken from the stream below an article in the Guardian about engineering employment.  “If engineers arent (sic) being offered competitive salaries then this implies there isnt (sic) much of a demand for engineers, so whats (sic) the problem? If there was a genuine shortage then salaries would rise due to lack of supply, this is economics”.


The article was by Professor Kel Fidler, who is the former chairman of the Engineering Council and former vice-chancellor of Northumbria University. Like so many before he is concerned about the lack of engineers and specifically what might be done by the universities to get more students studying the necessary degrees.  The stats were reiterated - the enormous shortfall in numbers studying compared to the number of engineering jobs the economy requires, the fact that the percentage studying engineering has remained constant (and low) for many years, etc.  The solution, apparently is “a rebranding of engineering … so people understand its approach to creativity, design and innovation bringing us our food, drink, energy, transport, buildings, communications, IT, clothes, entertainment – indeed all aspects of our lives. We need a sustained marketing campaign to sell engineering to the public through the media”.


The Guardian reader’s comment might seem to be posing a good question.  However, it’s clearly rubbish, because in some, if not most, areas of engineering, the shortage of skills mean that companies do pay over the odds and in some specific disciplines (specifically some software engineers) the candidates can demand a premium just for accepting a job there and then, knowing full well there are several firms desperate to recruit them.  The real problem is that the supply is so out of kilter that it will take an even bigger effort to sort it out than is being made at present, and in the meantime salaries are going to rise even more.  And it’s all made worse by the cohort of engineers who are coming to the end of their careers and seeking (early-ish) retirement, thus removing industry of massive experience and knowledge that is not easily replaced, even by the enthusiastic kids coming out of our engineering schools today.


In amongst the other comments below the Guardian article, people noted that in Germany engineering is very highly regarded.  Their post-war recovery has been based substantially on the quality of their engineering output and its export value.  No need of a ‘re-branding’ there.


Modern Britain is not Germany, but in the nineteenth century we were ‘The Workshop of the World’ and at one time probably well over 50% of the world’s ships were built by yards on the River Clyde.  No-one would have questioned the importance of engineering then.  In the 1950s we were at the forefront of the nascent computer industry and British Petroleum was, and still is, a massive, worldwide company. In the intervening period, as our engineering industries have declined, our interest in them has waned.


Consequently, I think that Professor Fidler may have a point.  We have invested hugely in trying to encourage schoolchildren into engineering, but they are still reluctant to enter the huge variety of different specialties it offers.  ‘Engineering is Sexy’ may not be the best slogan ever, but somehow we need to convince the next generation that it is just that. Engineering is not about changing the dustbag on a hoover, it’s about inventing a better hoover and being seen to make money by doing so! People like James Dyson are great, but we do need much more, a real shift in attitudes and perceptions.


Banging on about the problems is not the answer. The reality is that in the short/medium term, there is going to continue to be a shortage of engineers.  That means that we recruiters have to strive even harder to find the ones who are able and willing to move to a new job.  That’s what we do: we work very hard to represent our client to the candidate and vice versa, and we know that the market is not going to improve any time soon (although we do have some good ideas, of which more in a later blog!).


Instead, we do need to think about how to ‘emphasise the positives’ and change perceptions. It will take a societal shift in attitudes to engineering before Britain is like Germany, but given our economic history there is no reason why we can’t do so.  Otherwise, there will be no end to the depressing articles about the lack of engineers!


Karen Stewart, Associate Director (Engineering), Nine Twenty