The biggest challenges facing the engineering sector

Jemma Smith, Editor
August, 2020

Expert problem solvers engineers may be but the sector still has issues and challenges its trying to overcome

It's no secret that the engineering industry is struggling against a widespread skill and staff shortage. 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 is facing.


There's no doubt that the coronavirus pandemic has resulted in great change for all industries and employers and the engineering sector is no exception.

Dr Leevers highlights how engineers have stepped up to the challenge through the development and manufacture of ventilators and PPE, the conversion of conference centres into hospitals, the speeding up of COVID testing and tracking and searching for a vaccine.

'They've had to move fast to keep up with the rapidly changing context of their work - looking for creative solutions to urgent problems and working closely in interdisciplinary teams.'

While the effects of the pandemic are expected to impact industries for years to come, engineering will play a key role in building a resilient future for the UK. 'In their response to the current crisis, engineers have demonstrated their expertise, agility and innovation and lessons learned from the crisis will continue to inform the recovery and mitigate against future outbreaks,' adds Dr Leevers.

A recent EngieeringUK survey of 1,100 young people aged 11 to 19 revealed their concerns about the future of education and job opportunities. They said that the pandemic has constrained and changed their career choices - 30% said the careers they could do have changed and 22% said what they wanted to do has changed. 44% said that 'having a job that you can keep' had become more important, as had 'availability of jobs' (41%). Six out of ten felt that finding a job in the future would become more difficult, and half of 15 to 19-year olds said going to university would be more difficult.

Dr Leevers explains how engineering, manufacturing and technology provide a breadth of exciting careers that can bring job security alongside societal value. 'These sectors have been relatively resilient to the impacts of the pandemic and should only become stronger. The Government's recent 'Plan for Jobs' seeks to create thousands of jobs in new infrastructure, decarbonisation and maintenance projects that will upgrade our hospitals, schools and road network, make public buildings greener and help the UK achieve its aspirations of achieving Net Zero by 2050 - all of these efforts will require engineers.'

Gender imbalance

While a million women now work in core-STEM roles (a milestone that was achieved in 2019), 2019 workforce statistics from WISE show that women only account for just over 10% of engineering professionals. This isn't a new problem within the science, technology, engineering and mathematics industry.

'Employers are really keen to diversify their workforce - particularly drawing in more young women and people from ethnic minorities or socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds,' says Dr Leevers. 'Being able to draw upon a range of perspectives increases market insight and creativity and correspondingly grows organisational resilience and productivity.'

This basically cycles back round, so that as the engineering workforce becomes more diverse, so do the beneficiaries of engineering products and services.

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. Due to the global COVID-19 pandemic, many venues are unable to run in-person events. Instead many events will take place online.
  • 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.
  • 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.

'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,' adds Dr Leevers.

Discover more opportunities for women in engineering.


The engineering sector's reliance on international students leaves the talent pool vulnerable to changes that may occur as a result of Brexit. According to research by EngineeringUK, there's 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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