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Solutions to the Shortage of Skilled Workers in the UK Engineering Sector

March 15, 2019 by Biljana Ognenova

The UK Government’s Industrial Strategy, Building a Britain Fit for the Future, elaborates the four key challenges the UK faces now: AI and the data revolution, mobility, clean growth, and the ageing population. Even without a substantial engineering interest or background, it is evident that engineering jobs will play a crucial role in the aftermath of the practical implementation of this strategy.

That said, the UK job market also faces a serious shortage of skilled workers as an outcome of innovation, automation, globalisation, and, to a certain degree—geopolitics—such as Brexit.

Although the strategy pointed out three major areas to support UK citizens to achieve a prosperous future, including stronger national tech ed, targeted investing in STEM skills and developing a National Retraining Scheme, the engineering sector continues to struggle with poor prospects to suffice the job market demands.

Diverse Regional Implications

According to a report issued by Jobsite (containing insights from about 5,000 UK professionals), expert workers are going extinct in almost every UK industry. The problem spans nationwide with regional variations. Salary expectations play a crucial role in unsuccessful recruitment in London and the North West while lack of experience is the biggest challenge in the Midlands, the South East, and the East of England.

Apart from companies not offering competitive salaries, the increased workload and the scarcity of recruitment channels factor in the overall frail preparedness to respond to the growing number of engineering vacancies.

What Constitutes Engineering?

Perhaps the greatest challenge to working out solutions to the skills shortage is redefining engineering altogether.

Efforts to give new descriptions to existing job labels which will match the current context have been made by The Engineering Council, Royal Academy of Engineering, and EngineeringUK. Will this redefinition affect the shortage? It remains to be seen once the impact of redefining core and related engineering jobs is evaluated against the current initiatives.

What Industries Are Most Affected?

Certain industries are in more dire straits than others, for example construction and manufacturing. Technical and scientific companies, including construction, contribute about 30 per cent to the UK economy. As per ONS records, construction has been growing even more steadily in the last few years.

Image courtesy of Office for National Statistics.

It’s not that nothing has been done in the sector. A number of direct and indirect budget allocations have supported various UK engineering areas, including manufacturing and construction:

  • A £200,000 to £1 million increase in the Annual Investment Allowance (AIA) for plant and machinery equipment;
  • £695 million to reduce training participation fees for small business apprenticeships;
  • £115 million for the Catapult programs;
  • £1.1 billion increase in the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund;
  • £235 million to back up developing quantum technologies; and
  • £2 billion increase in the UK Export Finance (UKEF) direct lending facility.

Is this money well spent? We’ll need to wait at least a couple of years to draw more definite conclusions. In the changing industrial landscape, a segmented approach is not nearly enough. Engineering is a crucial sector for raising the UK’s productivity levels. Considering that 124,000 new workers will need to enter the engineering workforce by 2024, they need to come from somewhere.

What are some potential solutions to fill in this gap?

Exciting and Versatile Job Positions

EngineeringUK points out employment trends are moving towards an hourglass economy. Low-skill and high-skill jobs figure highly in the bulbs, while clerical and admin jobs shrink at the neck of the hourglass. So, the gap may increase even further.

Image courtesy of EngineeringUK.

As a general rule, engineering jobs are considered high-skilled and high-precision roles that require a lot of stimulation to remain attractive for candidates. The option to stimulate STEM graduates by offering career progression based on core and transferable skills must be taken in view of this redefinition.

If employers look unfavourably at cross-divisional career advancement, engineering graduates will just jump from job to job looking for the next best thing. This will adversely impact the skills shortage.

Many of the solutions to the skills shortage fall on the companies. That being said, engineers must meet employers half-way to fight some of the challenges. Additionally, institutional support is quintessential.

Let’s first look at some of the potential actions employers could make to help themselves and the interested candidates fill in new and existing openings in the engineering sector.

Strengthen Recruitment Strategies

Instead of relying on conventional hiring methods, UK businesses must use multiple, more open channels to reach out to candidates, simultaneously tweaking the recruitment process to maximise the potential of each channel. Engineers are most likely to look for jobs on job boards or via recruitment agencies, but they also search through LinkedIn and other social media channels.

Image courtesy of Unsplash.

Recruitment should be a work in progress to develop an internal talent pool or, at least, a job network. Internal referral programs may be an excellent resource to help recruiters who don’t have in-depth acumen in engineering skills in finding prospective candidates. Specialised headhunters may also add to this targeted approach.

Create Diverse Remote Teams

Since automation, crowdsourcing, and remote diverse teams play a big role in how today’s jobs are advertised—and not only in the UK—companies should look for suitable candidates through online platforms. Candidate relocation may be an option for the underskilled UK regions but overseas relocation is expensive and difficult, particularly when you consider current UK immigration policies.

Although some engineering jobs can be completed independent of the location, many require the employee to regularly come to work in a local office. Therefore, except for looking to outsource a portion of the newly opened jobs, the UK will need to implement a more lax approach to immigration.

Rebranding Companies

A job interview is no longer a one-sided interrogation. With blooming employment prospects, engineers are well aware of this fact.

Image courtesy of Unsplash.

Companies must develop and execute unique, highly attractive company branding strategies, since engineers consider the company factor to be important in the final choice they make. Some even refuse offers because they liked a position but they didn’t like the company.

On-the-job Training

One response to the innovation challenge is upskilling.

Engineering companies are now in the midst of huge changes following the footsteps of emerging technologies focused on AI, Big Data, and IoT. Many of those hundreds of thousands of new jobs will go to support the changing social infrastructures. Whoever is in charge of designing on-site training programs for engineering companies must consider a budget line that will include on-job training.

Due to the high level of precision and technological uncertainty, employees could not retrain only by themselves even if they wanted to. It must be a joint effort.

Cross-Divisional Career Progression

Closely connected to internal training is internal career progression.

Transferable skills can be used as one method to assess candidates’ capability for an alternative company opening. They complement core engineering skills and can spice up otherwise routine jobs. If companies want to prevent a great candidate from running off and joining competitors, they should reframe their thinking about engineers and soften the high-precision labels.

The Load on Employees

Naturally, engineers should also work on their transferable skills during university to increase competitiveness, but how should this work within the current shortage of STEM teachers? The general principle of the educational system is to provide engineers with a thousand ways to solve a math problem but none to solve a life problem, like finding a suitable job.

Image courtesy of Unsplash.

Qualified engineering candidates may now be spoiled for choice, but an alternative talent pool from already employed people is going to waste away because they are not incentivised to retrain.

Universities should open doors to candidates from a varied age range. Engineers could also meet employers halfway by being flexible with compensation packages.

Dealing with the skills shortage certainly has post-Brexit implications, too. Apart from redefining engineering jobs, it lessens immigration requirements for skilled workers, changing the perception of STEM fields from an early age.

Supporting candidates as STEM instructors with career guidance is another way to motivate young people to get an engineering degree. To enable high-quality apprenticeships and career mentorships, they must be developed through building new institutional channels between schools, the workforce, and employers.

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