The biggest challenges facing the engineering sector

Emma Knowles, Editor
September, 2017

Despite being an exciting industry to enter into with a range of career possibilities, the engineering and manufacturing sector still has hurdles to overcome

Challenges in engineering stem from an industry-wide staff shortage stretching beyond the UK to the rest of Europe. Across the continent, the sector is suffering from a pressing lack of civil, naval, aerospace and defence engineers.

The need for skilled engineers has never been more pressing as it is today. Technology is developing rapidly, its pace only getting quicker, and the global population is growing at a rate of more than 80 million per year. It's at the hands of the engineering sector to sustain many crucial aspects of our day-to-day lives.

The Royal Academy of Engineering suggests that the UK will need to hire 265,000 skilled workers in the sector annually until 2024, 186,000 of these in engineering positions, to cope with this demand.

While this may seem like an unrealistic feat, the factors contributing to this shortage have been identified and steps put in place to begin overcoming them.

Gender imbalance

In 2017, women account for only 1 in 8 of those in engineering jobs in the UK but this is not a new problem. Only around 20% of A-level physics students are girls - a statistic which, according to the Women's Engineering Society (WES), has not changed in 25 years. Boys are three and a half times more likely to take up the subject at A-level, and five times more likely to study engineering at university.

However, the sector is keen for its workforce to reflect the diversity of the country it serves. This is especially important as studies have shown that mixed teams (of age and race, as well as gender) are naturally less competitive, more creative and better communicators.

There is more and more being done within the sector to encourage girls to study engineering:

  • Ada Lovelace Day celebrates women in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, held 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 also 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 WISE campaign aims to 'increase the participation, contribution and success of women in STEM', by providing support for teachers, staff, STEM ambassadors and students.

Find out more about the opportunities for women in engineering.


The engineering sector faces a big image issue. While accommodating big names such as Rolls Royce, Jaguar Land Rover and Transport for London, it is also home to smaller, more geographically isolated companies.

Some of these smaller companies are unable to provide graduates with the same city life experience, despite offering considerably lower costs of living, decent starting salaries and more opportunities for career progression.

The solution is to generate enthusiasm about engineering from an early age, to ensure that factors such as location or company status won't serve as a deal-breaker to future engineers. The Institution of Mechanical Engineers and the Royal Academy of Engineering's 2016 Big Ideas report sets actions towards this, including:

  • Committing as a sector to a shared narrative, highlighting the human and social side of engineering alongside its technical achievements
  • Pushing for a broader curriculum for under-18s, to tackle gender imbalance early on
  • Improving the visibility of engineering by adopting a single, recognisable campaign, such as the Royal Academy's Engineering Talent Project.

Recruitment model

Engineering companies have increasing roles for technician positions which they are filling with graduates. In the majority of cases, however, graduates are overqualified for this level of work - technicians were once typically workers entering the sector without a higher education qualification. As a result, many are at risk at feeling dissatisfied with their career choice, the level of pay they receive in the role, and may leave the industry altogether.

The engineering sector is working to change and diversify its recruitment model in order to rectify this. In 2017, their focus is largely on recruiting more apprentices - there were 108,000 engineering apprenticeship starts in England for 2014/15 entry, the highest recruitment rate for 10 years.

As of April 2017, the government has introduced the Apprenticeship Levy to fulfil its promise of recruiting three million apprentices across a range of sectors by 2020. Employers will use this levy to pay for their apprentices to receive training.

To see what’s on offer, search engineering apprenticeships.


Following the Brexit vote in June 2016, the future of the UK engineering sector has been left uncertain for a number of reasons:

  • Crucial recruitment methods are becoming damaged. The sector employs many overseas workers, whose rights to work in the UK may be affected by the decision.
  • International collaborations will now require more negotiation due to differing restrictions under the present European Union (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 by the decision. Many companies presently 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. While this is potentially a great opportunity for workers, it piles pressure on to the UK engineering sector to recruit and retain a strong workforce.

Find out more