Tapping into talent: skills shortages

Atkins | 12 Sep 2013 | Comments

The engineering sector is at the forefront of attempts to address some of the world’s most complex challenges. And while today’s engineers search for solutions, there’s another problem that needs to be tackled – will we be able to meet the demand for such skills in the future?

The UK’s ten engineering-related sector skills councils believe that up to two million new recruits will be needed over the next decade, to join the 5.6 million already employed in the industry. The Royal Academy of Engineering has estimated that the minimum number of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) graduates needed to keep the industry on an even keel is 100,000 per year between 2012 and 2020. Right now, only 90,000 STEM students graduate annually – and around a quarter of them go on to choose non-science, engineering or technology occupations.

This shortfall remains an ongoing concern, but it’s only one piece in a complex puzzle. For example, the profession is also ageing: the current median age of a chartered engineer is 57 and that is rising by 10 years for every 14 years that elapse.

Tackling this shortfall will play a key role in meeting future demand for engineering skills and the industry has begun to adopt innovative ways to do just that.

A fulfilling profession

One solution has been proposed time and again: bring more women into the fold. A new survey of female engineers – called Britain’s got talented female engineers and conducted by Atkins and partners in the engineering sector – confirms that women remain an untapped and important source for vital new talent. But Atkins and its partners know it’s not that simple.

“We are committed to addressing the gender imbalance in our own companies and across the industry as a whole,” says Atkins’ UK HR director, Sue Cooper. “We know that women who already work in engineering have rewarding and fulfilling careers but we need to find new ways to explain the benefits to young women who are trying to decide what career path to take, before we lose their valuable skills to other, more widely recognised, professions.”

The engineering industry is working hard to change outdated perceptions to compete with careers such as law, medicine, financial services and IT, which also seek to recruit highly qualified STEM graduates. These perceptions can influence the career paths being chosen: while 65 per cent of male graduates in engineering and technology secure employment in the same field, that falls to 47 per cent for women.

Initiatives to tackle this issue include the annual Big Bang UK Scientists and Engineers Fair. This brings together industry bodies and a wide range of corporate sponsors to demonstrate opportunities in STEM-related careers for young people aged between 7 and 19. At the 2013 event in London, a team of Atkins graduate engineers mocked-up an eco-friendly house to highlight how almost every activity in daily life – from accessing the internet to drinking clean water from a tap – was linked to some form of engineering, design or science. More than 65,000 visitors attended the event.

Many companies conduct their own outreach programmes in schools and colleges to promote the diverse range of careers, high salaries, job security and opportunities for travel that the profession can offer. More than 100,000 young people have taken part in defence and security company BAE Systems’ STEM road shows since 2005, for example.

In February 2013, Siemens announced the launch of its Education Portal in conjunction with the Cabinet Office, the Department for Education and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. The interactive online resource, initially aimed at girls and boys aged from 11 to 14, will be rolled out to 5,000 schools across the UK by 2014. It contains a range of educational materials that have been designed by Siemens specialists and curriculum experts to inspire young people, support teachers and communicate the benefits of STEM careers to parents.

An international issue

Engineering skills shortages are not confined to the UK: European industrials including Siemens and Volvo recently warned that a shortage of skills could lead them to move R&D facilities to countries such as China and India – which, according to the Royal Academy of Engineering, produce 20 times and eight times more engineering graduates than the UK respectively. And an inquiry in 2012 by Australia’s senate found that the country would need at least 37,000 more engineers by 2016.

In a bid to improve the situation, professional body Engineers Australia runs an initiative called ‘Girl Talk!’, in which female members give school presentations to older pupils and highlight the exciting opportunities that exist.

In the US, there’s currently some debate in public policy circles about whether there’s a shortage of engineering talent in the world’s leading technology nation, which is partly linked to the direction of immigration reform. President Obama has said that improving STEM education is one of his priorities and will “make more of a difference in determining how well we do as a country than just about anything else that we do here”. But a recent report issued by the Economic Policy Institute argued that the US has a sufficient supply of engineering skills.

What’s clear is that women remain under-represented in the US engineering workforce. Today they make up 14 per cent of engineers, according to the Congressional Joint Economic Committee – although that’s a significant improvement from the early 1980s, when it stood at 5.8 per cent. Initiatives to improve the participation of women in the industry include the National Academy of Engineering’s EngineerGirl website, which aims to promote the opportunities offered by the profession to girls in middle school and also features an annual essay competition.

Transferring skills

For people already in the profession, the time has never been better for searching out new opportunities, even in different industries. For example, plans for a new generation of nuclear reactors – coupled with decommissioning, generation, fuel processing and military programmes – is leading to rising demand for skills in the UK’s nuclear sector.

The civil nuclear industry currently employs 44,000 highly skilled people, given its safety-critical nature. But research by Cogent, the UK’s sector skills council for the nuclear industry, has found that there will be a skills gap of 14,000 people by 2025 – meaning it will need 1,000 new recruits a year (mainly apprentices and graduates). In response, the UK Government launched the employer-led National Skills Academy for Nuclear in 2008 and has sponsored a number of collaborative initiatives.

“The need for experienced personnel means that transferring skills from other sectors will become increasingly important,” says Cooper. “This helps companies such as Atkins respond to complex and time-critical infrastructure challenges, and provides unrivalled opportunities for an individual to develop their career.”

It’s an area in which Atkins has significant experience, having launched the Atkins Training Academy in 2006 in response to the emerging nuclear skills gap. To date, more than 550 engineers have followed courses on topics such as understanding nuclear safety culture; decommissioning and radioactive waste management; and new generation reactor technology. Many have been engineers from other Atkins businesses, including defence, oil and gas, rail and highways, who wanted to retrain and learn skills relevant to the nuclear industry.

The Training Academy has also been extended to other sectors and has trained about 2,500 people since its inception. One example is the oil and gas sector, which is also facing up to significant skills shortages owing to factors including a fall in capacity after large redundancy rounds in the 1980s and 1990s, an ageing workforce profile and the popularity of careers in banking, finance and IT. The Academy has successfully transferred professionals in structural engineering – in bridge engineering, for example – to oil and gas, as well as staff from other highly regulated, safety-critical disciplines.

As Cooper explains, “We are genuinely excited by the opportunities we have to shape the world around us and we need to ensure we employ the best people to meet our existing and new clients’ needs. In the years ahead we’ll be focusing on attracting and retaining talented people and showing potential engineers of the future how rewarding a career in this sector can be.”

Click here to view the full Britain’s got talented female engineers survey from Atkins.

Download PDF