Overcoming the Shortage of Engineers
For many years, around the world, it has been recognised that there is a skills shortage in engineering; that there simply aren’t enough engineers required to complete large-scale investments of local, national and international importance.
For example, infrastructure projects from new airports, schools, hospitals, to power and water systems are being impacted by the lack of skilled engineers and technicians coming through the talent pipeline. But it is not just the “traditional” jobs in civil, mechanical, electrical, and aeronautical engineering; there is a growing need for multidisciplinary engineers working in renewable technology, robotics, additive manufacturing, the digitisation of industry and 6G networks to name but a few areas.
The 2020 Global Engineering Capability Review recognised that the skills gap in engineering will also impact areas of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals in terms of clean energy, sustainable cities and climate action. The review, commissioned by the Royal Academy of Engineering and Lloyd’s Register Foundation, noted that whilst engineering offered an essential lever by which countries could achieve the UN goals, this could not be done unless there was a proper pool of talent coming through with the right level of skills.
While historically most engineers were produced from developed countries like the UK, Germany and USA, recent trends have demonstrated that a significant number of engineers are being produced from emerging countries like Russia, India and Iran. This then has an impact on where engineering is happening globally, with different countries pulling and attracting engineers to their projects, leaving a dearth in other countries.
According to the European Commission Labour Shortages and Surpluses Report 2019, construction and engineering skills were ranked as two of the most sought after in Europe. They identified civil, mechanical, electrical and software engineers as some of the occupations in which there are a significant shortfall of skilled professionals – not just because of dwindling numbers coming through the European education system, but also because of a lack of applications coming from outside the union.
This global war for talent exacerbates the issue of a skills shortage as countries still need to develop infrastructure, power systems and get ahead on other engineering projects – but are struggling to fulfil the roles. In the UK, EngineeringUK has been tracking the annual demand for engineers and technicians needed just to keep pace with infrastructure and other engineering projects. They estimate that 203,000 roles are required annually, made up of 124,000 engineers and technicians with core engineering skills, plus 79,000 related roles requiring a mix of engineering knowledge and other skills sets like project management.
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Assessing the root causes
Whilst the demand is quite clear, the reasons why this is the case is more complex – a key one pertains to the complexion of the current workforce. The average age of an engineer partly depends on which engineering discipline you are referring to; in the UK, it is around the mid 50s mark. This means that within a decade or so, many will retire, leaving a large gap in the workforce that the sector will somehow have to plug. At the other end of the career spectrum there is a lack of engineering and technical graduates, and apprentices coming through schools, colleges and universities. While acutely felt in the UK, this combined threat can be witnessed in many countries around the world.
Not much can be done about an ageing workforce apart from trying to retain as many as possible, for as long as possible. With engineers in the UK having on average around 30 years of experience, a huge knowledge transfer will also be needed before this wave of retirements begins. However, the lack of young people entering the sector is the area where something can and (in some instances) is being done. Finding the solution to the skills shortage will rely on identifying its root causes. It will not be easy nor quick and will require a coordinated effort by all stakeholders. Let’s take a closer look.
There are three areas worth noting when it comes to why young people are not entering the sector in enough numbers: an insufficient awareness of what engineers do, a misperception of what engineering is, and a lack of opportunity for all to be involved. In many ways, the school setting is where most young people will first encounter what engineering is and what it’s not. The choices they make and the courses they take will determine the initial talent pool coming through for companies to recruit from. So, it is important to ensure that all young people have a comprehensive knowledge and understanding of engineering career options. Unfortunately, in the UK at least, that is not the case.
For example, almost half of those between 11 and 19 years old say they know little or nothing about what engineers do. In part, this is because engineers aren’t very visible in everyday life. Most young people could describe what a doctor, dentist or teacher does, because they are visible in their lives. They obviously see teachers in school and would have visited a doctor or dentist while growing up – but rarely would they have seen a professional engineer at work. This lack of awareness is compounded by the fact that most STEM teachers are not from an engineering background and cannot talk with genuine authority on the topic. Parents, too, often have limited knowledge of what engineering is and are, therefore, unable to convey the positives aspects of a career in that industry. The image of engineers has been further distorted historically by depictions of a dirty industry, with predominantly men working unsuitable hours in harsh conditions – and this stereotype has been fairly persistent over time.
This brings us to the second issue: the misconception of what engineering actually is. Whilst it is obviously true that some engineering roles are dirty and involve harsh conditions (think oil and gas engineers on a platform in the North Sea), the nature of modern engineering is such that that image should have now diversified. The range of new engineering disciplines has grown in the past few decades and as highlighted above, roles are needed now, and into the future, in software engineering, robotics and AI etc. This changes the nature of engineering and where engineers work – less site and more office. This also calls for a new set of skills and problem-solving knowledge which the government, educators and industry have been addressing.
The UK denoted 2018 as the “Year of Engineering” in an attempt to tackle not only the perception issues, but to encourage more young people from diverse backgrounds to consider engineering as a future career. It was also aimed at addressing the third issue mentioned above – providing an opportunity for all.
The year-long campaign organised by the government and industry was aimed at young people, their parents and teachers alike. Through a series of activities, talks, open houses and general information flow, the campaign encouraged everyone to think about what engineering is and to challenge stereotypes.
Recent efforts from engineering companies have also tried to tackle the fact that historically, engineering has been more open to white males with university degrees. The lack of diversity in the profession has been highlighted by research done for the Year of Engineering, which showed the engineering workforce was just 6% ethnic minority and 9% female. The numbers have shifted slightly in the last few years, with BAME engineers now making up 8% of the workforce and women 13%. Addressing this underrepresentation of women and people of colour in engineering will inevitably lead to a wider talent pool coming through.
So, in order to tackle the shortage of skills in engineering it is necessary to tackle the root causes: awareness, perception, and lack of opportunity for all. Not doing so will mean that companies simply will not have the staff to complete engineering projects and national economies will be adversely affected.
The solution, however, will require not only a common understanding of the challenges, but a coordinated set of actions undertaken by government, policymakers, educators, and engineering companies. Some work has been done already, but as has been noted, this is a time sensitive issue. With the ageing UK workforce retiring within a decade or so, work needs to intensify if we are to tackle the root causes of not enough young people coming through to take their place.