Water sector: responses to the skill shortage of engineers

Mike Woolgar | 26 Jan 2015 | Comments

The water sector is already facing a number of modern day challenges including adapting to and mitigating the effects of climate change, managing the needs of a growing population, complying with ever more stringent environmental standards, maintaining ageing infrastructure and meeting the requirements of a low carbon economy. With an impending shortage of engineers likely due to the focus on a wide range of infrastructure projects, it will lead to increased competition for resources in the industry. The sector could be hit by a number of challenges such as increased cost pressures, delays to projects and the loss of Intellectual property as outlined in the sector report.

These consequences could cause long term damage to the sector’s ability to plan, design and deliver our water needs for the next 100 years. Specifically, we need to be thinking seriously about how we will deliver the water, waste and flooding projects outlined in the government’s National Infrastructure Plan. If we don’t have enough engineers to deliver these projects, in parallel with all the other critical infrastructure in other sectors, such as energy, transport and digital infrastructure who are all competing for skills and resources, what will we do? Will projects be delayed? Cancelled? Or will projects need to be prioritised and what impacts could this have on the UK and society as a whole? All are potential challenges we could face in years to come, if we fail to tackle the skills shortage challenge head on.

However, we are already making good use of global design centres, where we can send design work which helps manage peaks and troughs in workload, but this cannot be the whole answer. In order to be able to prepare the right projects, support planning and implementation we need highly skilled and experienced engineers and scientists with the ability to create, maintain and extend our vital infrastructure. Sustainability in that sense depends on the intellectual capital we maintain and nurture in the UK.

I do believe one shining light is innovation. It needs to become the key driver in how we tackle the resource issues in the short term, whilst we focus on building up our engineering base in the UK. Ideas provide a catalyst for cross sector efficiency, infrastructure solutions, reducing resource reliance and showcasing the UK’s abilities as a leading infrastructure provider.

It’s important we in the industry take this report as the opportunity to be more effective and better co-ordinated across sectors to drive up the number of young people taking up STEM careers, through both the apprenticeship and university routes. As an industry we need to take the lead and invest in training and development. We must also push harder to change the perceptions of engineering as a profession, educating not only young people, but parents, teachers and the wider population about the great career opportunities and experiences on offer.

A full copy of the skills report is available to view/download here.