The biggest challenges facing the engineering sector

Author
Jemma Smith, Editor
Posted
September, 2019

Engineers aim to make everyday life better for everyone by solving complex problems. While it's an exciting industry to work in, the engineering sector isn't without its challenges

It's no secret that the engineering industry is struggling against a widespread skill and staff shortage. The need for skilled engineers has never been as pressing as it is today. Technology is developing rapidly, and the global population is growing apace. It's in the hands of current and future engineers to maintain and sustain many crucial aspects of our lives.

According to a 2019 EngineeringUK report, 124,000 engineers and technicians will be needed annually up to 2024, while 79,000 engineering-related roles are expected to emerge per year, to cope with demand.

'Ensuring that we have enough people with the right skills and experience is about bringing a greater number and greater diversity of young people into engineering,' says Dr Hilary Leevers, CEO of EngineeringUK. 'We also need to upskill and reskill the current workforce for the current and future workplace - this includes digital skills and the ability to think and work across traditional disciplinary boundaries.'

While the need to recruit fresh talent into the industry is a pressing concern, it isn't the only challenge that the sector faces.

Gender imbalance

The sectors lack of diversity is most visible in its gender imbalance. While women made up 47% of the UK workforce in 2018, only 12% of workers in engineering disciplines were female. This isn't a new problem within the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) industry. Boys are far more likely to consider a career in engineering than girls according to an EngineeringUK report.

The 2019 EngineeringUK report also highlights that when it comes to GCSE study only 11% of females take up an engineering-related subject. The gender gap continues into higher education. In 2016/17, women comprised just 16% of first degree entrants in engineering and technology, compared with 56% of first degree entrants overall.

As the sector is keen for its workforce to reflect the diversity of the country it serves, it's clear that tackling issues of diversity should be a high priority for the engineering community. This is especially important as studies show that mixed teams (of age and race, as well as gender) are naturally less competitive, better at communication and more creative.

An increasing number of initiatives encourage girls to study engineering:

  • Ada Lovelace Day celebrates women in STEM, held annually on the second Tuesday of October. The day is commemorated by a live event, Ada Lovelace Day Live!, where women are encouraged to share stories, comedy sketches or musical pieces with a STEM focus. The day includes events around the world, and men and women alike are encouraged to write about women in STEM on a public platform - via social media, blogging or in print.
  • The Women's Engineering Society (WES) holds conferences celebrating women in engineering, including their International Women in Engineering Day (INWED) on 23 June each year. The society also offers a mentoring programme for women in STEM and holds an annual awards scheme, WE50, recognising 50 influential women in engineering. WES celebrates its centenary year in 2019.
  • The WISE campaign aims to increase the participation, contribution and success of women in STEM by providing support for teachers, staff, STEM ambassadors and students. Its Ten Steps programme helps firms recruit and retain women.

This encouragement appears to be working - WISE 2018 Workforce Statistics show that there has been an increase of more than 44,000 women in core STEM occupations since 2017. The statistics also saw a 25% increase in the number of professional women engineers.

'Many organisations are already working to inspire the next generation of engineers. We need to ensure that our efforts are coordinated, impactful and inclusive - making a difference where it counts most,' explains Dr Leevers. 'The diversity and inclusion programme of one of our key partners, the Royal Academy of Engineering, also supports employers to recruit and retain people from all backgrounds in engineering.'

Discover more opportunities for women in engineering.

Shortage of specialist teachers

According to the Royal Academy of Engineers Engineering skills for the future 2019 report 'evidence shows that teachers' effectiveness is a key factor in a young person's academic interest and engagement in a subject.' Despite making recommendations for the government to target recruitment in key shortage subjects such as physics and maths, the number of specialist STEM teachers at secondary level has remained stagnant since 2015 despite increases in pupil numbers.

Employers also report difficulties in teacher retention. Teacher recruitment targets in STEM subjects have now been missed for five consecutive years. Because schools are struggling to fill STEM vacancies, students are being taught by teachers who do not have a relevant qualification in the subject.

Bursaries to encourage graduates into teaching are helping but are failing to reduce the shortage. The report identifies that engineering graduates and professional engineers have the technical knowledge to be able to teach the shortage STEM subjects.

Brexit

With Brexit looming, the engineering sector's reliance on international students leaves the talent pool vulnerable to changes that may occur once the UK leaves the European Union (EU). According to research by EngineeringUK there is also a very real possibility that universities will be less able to recruit EU students and attract EU research funding beyond 2020. The debate on immigration and the rhetoric around Brexit may also impact on the views of those international students and researchers considering the UK.

Other issues surrounding Brexit include:

  • The engineering sector employs many overseas workers, whose rights to work in the UK may be affected. 
  • International collaborations may require more negotiation due to differing restrictions under the present EU and upcoming UK laws. In the future, this may become too costly and time-consuming to be seen as worthwhile.
  • Supply chains will be negatively affected. Many companies check all parts imported in and out of the EU as part of their safety regulations. Moving out of the EU will complicate this process and cause disruption to Just in Time chains.

If engineering work can more easily be completed inside the EU, these companies are likely to uproot and move their business out of the UK, taking their workers with them.

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