March 10, 2017 blog

Engineering: Solving the skills crisis

Lack of understanding of an engineer's job and the image of the industry were the two biggest barriers to young people choosing a career in engineering reveals research by the Institute of Mechanical Engineers and Tata

In collaboration with the Institute of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE), Tata undertook research to better understand the future of engineering in the UK. The research comes at a critical time and highlights: the skills our engineers need; how best to inculcate those skills; the challenges that lie ahead for UK engineering; and which countries we can look towards for examples of good practice.

This article focuses on solving the skills crisis; it contains two elements: the findings of a survey of engineers undertaken by Tata and IMechE; and insights provided via interviews. Download the full Insights Paper here.

The skills squeeze in British engineering is well documented. According to the 2016 Engineering UK report, The State of Engineering, more than 1.8m more staff with engineering skills will be needed across the UK by 2025; there is an annual shortfall of 69,000 engineers; and the UK needs to double the number of engineering graduates it produces if it is to meet the growing demand for skills. More than half of engineering firms report finding it difficult to fill advertised roles, and in the automotive sector alone, up to 5,000 roles nationwide could currently be vacant due to a skills shortage, according to the Automotive Industrial Partnership.

“We have been talking about a skills crisis in engineering for years,” said David Landsman, Executive Director of Tata Limited, “but until now, we’ve been able to plug any gaps with talent from the across the EU. It’s right that the best and brightest should be able to come from anywhere in the world to work in the UK, and that will continue to some extent - but the reality is that, unless we act quickly to boost the numbers of young people choosing engineering careers, a shortage of skilled workers will act as a drag on economic growth. Decisive action is needed now.”

Survey respondents agreed. Almost two thirds (63%) of engineers surveyed thought that the UK’s engineering system would not fulfil the needs of the British engineering sector by 2025; only 13% thought it would.

“We’ve talked for too long about the challenges facing us as an industry in the UK,” explains Jose Lopes, Head of Technical Excellence at Jaguar Land Rover. “But we’re engineers. When we see a problem, we prefer trying to fix it.

When asked why, 70% said ‘understanding of an engineer’s job’ and 68% said ‘the image of the industry and engineering’ were the two biggest barriers to young people choosing a career in engineering. Tata’s experts agreed that engineering is hobbled by a pervasive image problem.

“Engineering is exciting, it’s creative and it has a true value to society,” said Julie Woods-Moss, President, Chief Innovation and Marketing Officer at Tata Technologies. If you’re an engineer, you’re a creator - inventing new things and solving real world problems. When I tell young people that the inventors of Google, Instagram and Skype are all engineers, it really blows their minds. The opportunities opening up in digital, IT and software engineering could really transform the image of engineering and entice more people into it.”

''Wrong perceptions are damaging the diversity of the sector,” said Lopes. “The extent of opportunities that engineering can open up clearly isn’t getting through to enough people – but especially women and girls.” Just 9% of engineers in the UK are women.

Woods-Moss agreed. “Out of my year, I was the only girl who applied to study engineering. There were more girls who went to study the sciences, and medicine, but for a long time I was pretty much the only female engineer I knew. 

Nick Sale, Chief Operating Officer at Tata Technologies in Europe, said he and his colleagues were constantly having to battle misconceptions. “People think it’s dirty, it’s mucky, it’s a job just for men, it just involves mending things, it’s un-creative, dull – more or less the opposite of my own experience. And if we could triple the number of young women taking maths and physics at A-Level that would go a very long way towards closing the skills gap entirely.”


More stories