The biggest challenges facing the engineering sector

Emma Knowles, Editor
October, 2018

Although jobs in engineering and manufacturing provide a fast-paced working environment within an exciting industry, the sector is working hard to address a range of shortcomings

Challenges in engineering come 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, mechanical and electrical engineers, among others.

The need for skilled engineers has never been as pressing as it is today. Technology is developing rapidly, and the global population is growing at a rate of approximately 83 million per year. It's at the hands of the engineering sector to sustain many crucial aspects of our day-to-day lives.

In 2017, EngineeringUK forecast a required 265,000 skilled workers needed annually through to 2024, including those needed to fill the 79,000 engineering-related roles expected to emerge per year, to cope with 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

The Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering Create the Future Report 2017 revealed that two thirds of those surveyed believe there should be more diverse role models in engineering. The sector's lack of diversity is most visible in its gender imbalance - in 2018, just 12% of engineers and technicians are women.

This isn't a new problem within the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) industries. Only around a fifth of A-level physics students are girls - a statistic which, according to the Institute of Physics, has barely changed in the past three decades. Boys are nearly three and a half times more likely to take up the subject at A-level (6.5% of boys, compared to just 1.9% of girls).

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 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.

Initiatives to encourage girls into STEM subjects appear to be working - WISE reports that, in 2018, 48% more girls opted to study computing at A-level than in 2017. Data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) also shows the number of girls starting engineering and technology degrees continues to increase year on year.

Discover more opportunities for women in engineering.

Industry image issues

Although the engineering sector is home to big names, such as Rolls Royce, Jaguar Land Rover and Transport for London - many of which give employees the chance to work on high-profile projects - a large proportion of employers in the engineering sector are smaller, more geographically-isolated companies.

Some of these companies are unable to provide graduates with the same city life experience, despite offering considerably lower costs of living, decent starting salaries and better chances of 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 the shared narrative of highlighting engineering as a people-focused discipline, beneficial to all areas of society as well as big technological advancements.
  • Pushing for a broader curriculum for under-18s, allowing for more flexibility in routes into engineering.
  • Shifting the focus in STEM subjects from theoretical teaching to contextual, problem-based learning.

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 of feeling dissatisfied with their career choice, the level of pay they receive in the role, and may leave the industry altogether.

This is just one reason why the sector is working to change its recruitment model. There's a focus on recruiting and retaining more STEM teachers, with the aim of inspiring and shaping the career plans of young people to combat future skills shortages and diversity issues.

EngineeringUK reports that the number of STEM teachers in the UK has remained stagnant since 2015, with 2017 being the fifth consecutive year recruitment targets were missed in England. Initiatives such as Scotland's five-year STEM education and training strategy, launched in October 2017, have been introduced to rectify this.

The government introduced the Apprenticeship Levy in April 2017 to fulfil its promise of recruiting three million apprentices across a range of sectors by 2020. Employers can 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. 
  • The UK is a less attractive option for international workers. With international students currently making up 68.9% of taught and 61.1% research postgraduate engineering programme cohorts in the UK, retaining international talent to enter the workforce is of increasingly widespread concern and importance.
  • International collaborations may 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.

The UK is set to depart the EU on 29 March 2019.

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