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The defence skills shortfall

Chris Jones | 18 Sep 2015 | Comments

The engineering skills deficit that the UK faces has been widely publicised in the media. Quite rightly, major emphasis has been placed upon the impact this will have on the delivery of major domestic infrastructure projects which might help drive the UK economic recovery and growth. However, this skills gap also represents a serious challenge for the UK’s defence sector.

The Ministry of Defence (MOD) has identified a number of specific areas that are most at risk as result of the skills deficit. These include maritime engineering, cyber and medical expertise. With many of these skills possessed by specialists within the private sector, the MOD are working with industry to ‘collaborate, not compete’ over personnel in these technical disciplines. As a result, a UK Defence enterprise approach that allows for the ready transfer of skilled people to the place of greatest need is now being considered.

Secondments and placements between the MOD and industry are a well-established tradition, but usually on a short-term basis to meet project needs or for personal and professional development. And the idea that skilled people should be pooled between the public and private sector and allowed to easily flow between the two is also not new. However, the context and conditions in which it must now be allowed to happen are.

Skills shortfalls in maritime engineering, particularly nuclear, are the absolute priority and potential solutions are being considered as part of a pilot programme between the MOD and the largest maritime industry companies. We’re helping through the development of a nuclear skills competency framework, drawing on specialist engineering and ex-Armed Forces experience across the company. But this pilot needs to expand and the programme needs to accelerate if shortfalls in areas such as cyber and medical are going to be met.

Should industry be concerned? I would argue yes. If defence outputs cannot be met by the MOD, then there is no business and if a lack of overall skilled capability, or an inability to deploy that capability prevails, the enterprise fails.

We have a seat at the table of the Defence Suppliers Forum skills group. This group is taking a lead role in working with the MOD to drive the thinking and assessment of the various pilot activities and future initiatives. Building on the Defence Growth Partnership’s excellent work on engineering skills, and with a similar interest in the Cyber Growth Partnership, we’re pushing hard for the widest possible engagement and appropriately broad vision. However, the challenge is now on the table for the wider industry to follow suit and commit their thought leadership and expert resource to help overcome the obstacles that could prevent progress.

This is a national problem, requiring a national response. At Atkins, we are keen to be an integral part of that response. And with autumn’s Strategic Defence and Security Review looking to set new policy for skills requirements, the time is now right for other businesses to ensure their voices are heard so that they can help shape the future approach into a truly shared enterprise.