Out of the worst?

16 October 2011
By Paul Davies
female engineer working in team on shopfloor

It would be impossible not to notice that we live in economically turbulent times, with billions of pounds lost and gained on shares, borrowed and loaned to support unstable economies. But what has this meant to engineering industry and in particular to engineering employment in the UK?

Only a few years ago the situation was completely different. Business was booming, share prices were high and banks were lending rather too much money to anyone who asked for it. Engineers were in demand and there was talk of engineering skills shortages. In 2006 the IET decided to try to quantify the extent of the shortages and gaps in the engineering skills market. The result was the first ‘Skills and Demand in Industry’ report, which found that around 30 per cent of companies were experiencing problems recruiting engineers, and that employers were having problems trying to recruit experienced engineers. The IET has conducted a skills survey every year since, tracking the demand for engineering skills through boom, bust and recovery. The reports are not just an academic exercise. They have been used by the IET to contribute to the broader skills debate in the media and to shape our advice to Government and Parliament.

The 2011 report was published in early July and reflects a snap shot of the skills issues experienced by sample 400 UK companies from across the engineering and technology spectrum. The 2010 skills report showed an increase in recruitment and training over the results for 2009, however, the overall results for 2011 show at best a continuation of the level of demand for engineers. Overall 47 per cent of companies reported that they were currently recruiting engineering staff, with strong levels of recruitment in the energy, defence and computing sectors. Recruitment of IT staff was at a much lower level, with only 12.5 per cent of companies looking for staff. This was, not unsurprisingly, led by the IT and computing sector. Of those engineering companies currently recruiting, several reported experiencing problems attracting the right staff at all levels. Repeating the findings of previous years, nearly half of all companies had problems recruiting experienced engineers, followed by about a third having problems finding engineering graduates. With lower overall levels of recruitment, it is of no surprise that IT staff are easier to find, with few problems (~15 per cent) being reported, unless the companies were trying to recruit IT managers, when a third reported difficulties.

Overall it would appear that companies are confident that they will be able to recruit the engineering staff they will need in the future, with the results showing a repeat of the optimism of the past two years. This is in contrast to the pessimism of the boom years (up to 2008), when there was a general feeling in industry that not enough young people were entering the profession. It would seem that the UK is in danger of re-creating this situation, with companies forecasting demand for school leavers and postgraduates trailing behind demand for graduates and experienced staff. There is again no obvious improvement to the recurring problem of gender imbalance within the profession and indeed within engineering industries. Even though a quarter of employers thought that more women were entering the profession, the actual proportion of women engineers remains stubbornly low at around the 5 per cent level.

Skills shortages are obviously important, but the report also sought to investigate the skills gaps in the workforce, probing the competency of new recruits and the training provided by employers. Overall, most recruits appear to meet the expectations of their employers, with only around 30 per cent reporting skills gaps. These included a perceived lack of practical experience and technical expertise, particularly in school leavers and new graduates. The actual content of engineering and technology degrees received a strong vote of confidence from employers, with 78 per cent of companies reporting that the degree courses suited their needs. Of those that didn’t, the main complaint was again the lack of development of practical skills. Looking at the actions that employers are taking to develop their staff, the report indicates that the levels of training have increased from the cut-backs of 2009 and 2010, although they are still significantly below the levels of 2008. Companies are offering a broad range of training options, such as short courses in technical and softer skills and their own development programmes.

It is often said that more young people would be attracted into the engineering profession if only companies would get more involved with their local schools. The call seems to be being answered, with 83 per cent of companies reporting engagement with schools, colleges and universities. Taking students on work experience was by far the most common form of engagement. The IET is pressing the Government to provide the necessary resources and encouragement to make sure that all the routes into the profession are clear and attractive to students, parents and teachers.

Overall, the results of the survey outlined in the 2011 report would appear to indicate that the demand for engineers is continuing to grow, but is still short of the levels experienced before the recession. Skills shortages are appearing and companies are building for the future by developing their staff, employing apprentices and engaging with education providers. Whether this positive trend continues will depend largely upon the results of the economic turmoil around us.

All the IET skills reports, including the 2011 Skills and Demand in Industry report can be found on the IET website at www.theiet.org/factfiles/education/skill-survey-page.cfm

IET Graduate Advantage

In these uncertain times for graduate employability, the IET is stepping up its efforts to help students and graduates improve their chances of finding a job.
Graduate Advantage is a new initiative, piloted this year with IET Academic Partners in the UK. Final year students in engineering and computing have been invited to sign up for the first year after the end of their studies for a reduced membership fee.

Graduate Advantage delivers resources designed to deliver a professional advantage to graduates, including materials to highlight the benefits of IET membership to prospective employers. Existing student members also receive an official document detailing their continuous membership history.

In addition, a new Young Professional buddy scheme allows students and graduates to benefit from the experience of members who have themselves graduated within the last few years. Participants are also directed to a specific web page containing links to a wealth of other items ranging from postgraduate scholarships to information on assessment centres. Regular Graduate Advantage communications throughout the year will deliver further content tailored to new graduates and those starting out in work.

Exclusive Graduate Advantage recruitment events were held from March 2011 onwards, with a very high proportion of attendees signing up to the package. Recruitment of next year’s graduates will start in the New Year and the package will also be rolled out in India and China over the next year.

Find out more at www.theiet.org/graduateadvantage

IET Education

The IET’s Education for Schools and Colleges programme is working with schools, families and students to help develop an understanding of engineering, engineers and technicians, encouraging students towards careers in the sector.

The team provides classroom resources for teachers, engineering-themed activity days for students, support for the IET’s Education Partners, and resources enabling members to engage with young people and their families. Here are some of the most recent changes:

• The IET Faraday range of free resources for schools has undergone a major overhaul. The engineering case-studies and accompanying lesson activities have been reformatted and will be available through a new user-friendly website to be launched by the end of the year.
• The annual IET Faraday Challenge Day competition of in-school engineering-themed challenges for children aged 12-13 has expanded to 45 events across the UK, plus another ten taking place at IET Academic Partner universities.
• The IET supports local schools activities initiated or endorsed by members through the IET Education Fund. The 2011 round funded 33 projects with up to £5000 each. The next funding round commences in the New Year.
• The IET has a number of Education Partners including providers of teaching resources and hands-on activities for use in lessons or in after-school science and engineering clubs. One of these is Formula 1 in Schools. This year the IET became one of the major supporters of Greenpower with students aged from 9 to 25 competing to build and race single-seat battery-powered racing cars.

If you are interested in getting involved in these or any other schools engagement activities contact schools@theiet.org

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