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Who will engineer tomorrow?

Atkins | 10 Dec 2007 | Comments

As a generation of engineers looks to retire, fewer students are choosing the profession for a long-term career. With rising demand for talent in the industry, is the long-predicted skills gap finally hitting home?

The numbers just don’t add up. In the UK, around 15,000 professional civil engineers will be retiring in the next decade and about 6,000 will be coming into the profession. In Germany, a study commissioned by the country’s economics ministry calculated that Germany would lack up to 95,000 engineers by 2014.

And, according to a report by the Australian Industry Board published in 2001, 67 per cent of electrical engineering firms and 62 per cent of firms in the metals and engineering sector surveyed were reporting shortages.

Shortages are being reported throughout the developed world, and look to be on the horizon for developing markets as well, as the local talent pool leaves to fill the gaps. Where have all the engineers gone?

“There is no doubt that there is a significant shortage of highly qualified engineers in the UK and across the world,” says Tom Foulkes, director general of the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) in the UK. “Currently, global investment in infrastructure is high, therefore demand for skilled people is running ahead of supply. A lack of skilled engineers can lead to projects being held back until qualified professionals are recruited.

“In the short term, global mobility can help companies mitigate against skills shortages by recruiting qualified engineers from around the world. In the long term, we need to excite young people about the opportunities engineering offers in order to bring more gifted people into the profession.”

“The industry is facing a very big hole,” agrees Ian Ling, an engineer who worked across a range of industries for 40 years before retiring in 1997, and is now president of the Society of Operations Engineers (SOE) in the UK. “There’s already a shortage of engineers in this country and as our existing engineers get older and retire, there’s not going to be a smooth introduction of new talent. Without that smooth transition, the experience of older engineers won’t be passed down the line and we’ll find ourselves suffering a knowledge gap. If we lose the continuity, that experience can be lost.”

“There are people at the top and there are new people coming in, but there isn’t a continuous line between the two,” adds Lila Tachtsi, Highways and Transportation engineer at Atkins. “Succession planning is an issue and there aren’t enough people to fill in the gaps at all levels. Recruitment and staff retention are priorities for Atkins and they are being addressed, but I do fear that the situation could become worse as we grow.”

What’s being done?

There’s certainly no lack of employment opportunities in engineering. According to a recent report by UK-based online recruitment firm, Jobserve, “in the year-on-year comparisons, engineering is the strongest performer, registering 71 per cent growth with 10,569 jobs advertised followed by construction at 50 per cent”.

The same stories are being told wherever these shortages are being reported. The Australian government has gone so far as to establish a National Skills Shortage Strategy to address the issue.

And it doesn’t help that there are endless major projects in the works and in the pipeline worldwide – “such as the Olympics and revamping the country’s rail network” in the UK, says Alun Griffiths, group director of human resources at Atkins, to say nothing of the ongoing development in economic powerhouses like China and India.

There’s also no lack of effort being made to attract and develop engineering skills at university level. For its part, Atkins has sponsored a new Professor of Civil Engineering chair at the University of Greenwich, as well as funding a professorship and research associate role, and 12 half-fee scholarships at the British University in Dubai (BUiD).

However, a report by the Royal Academy of Engineering (Educating Engineers for the 21st Century, published April 2006) suggests that the problem may be earlier in the process. It found that “in the UK, in the 10 years up to 2004, the number of students opting for engineering courses remained almost static at 24,500 – dropping proportionately from 11 per cent to less than eight per cent of university entrants. Less than half the engineering cohort chose to enter the engineering profession after graduating from college.”

“You have to go far back to solve the problem,” says Griffiths. He claims the education system in the UK is too narrow, requiring pupils to specialise too early.

“Unless you learned maths and physics, you are probably excluded from many engineering and science degrees,” he says. “These are quite difficult subjects that are less fashionable than others and there is a shortage of teachers in maths and science in schools, so it is often taught by staff for whom it is their second discipline rather than the first.”

For those who are interested in the subject at an early age, it is often a case of vocation, rather than any organised programme, that keeps them involved. Such was the case for Sam Stephens, a civil engineering graduate from Durham University, now working at Atkins: “When I was 15 years old, I decided to focus on engineering – which just shows how long it can take to breed and grow engineers,” he says. “It wasn’t anything enigmatic: I liked maths and physics at school, and I wanted to do something practical, but scientific as well. Engineering answered that need. I wanted to continue on in those subjects and study them at a higher level, but didn’t necessarily want to specialise in either. I wanted to have some real world application of the knowledge.”

For Stephens, “no-one was handing out leaflets at school and saying, ‘Here’s what engineers do’” – though his tutor encouraged him. “He was one of the people who suggested I should consider it in the first place. Having that role model was highly influential in my career decision.”

“The Department of Technological Studies in my school was quite active, involving the pupils in extracurricular activities based around the subject, in a way that none of the other departments were,” says Mark Fitzpatrick, a mechanical and engineering graduate from the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, now working for Atkins’ nuclear and power division. “For example, we would participate in inter-school competitions for design. They also ran programmes such as Head Start and the Engineering Education Scheme, which are organised by the Royal Academy of Engineering, and focused on getting school kids interested in engineering as a career, letting them see what the industry is like.”

What’s to be done

Present engineers with a problem, of course, and you’re guaranteed to be offered a lot of possible solutions.

“We fail to produce role models,” suggests Ling. “Engineers are not limelight seekers and they work in teams, not individually. Go back and you can name Brunel, Stevenson, Whittle and so on. Because of the nature of the business today, you don’t get engineers standing out from the crowds. It’s all very much focused on the team effort – but it’s a team of engineers. Nobody’s name appears on the packet. We’ve got to get over this idea.”

The sentiment is echoed by Ambrose Langley-Poole, working out of Atkins’ offices in Bangalore: “The UK is still a source of premier engineering products and services. The work that we do in niche manufacturing markets is very high value – look at motor racing, aerospace, defence – but the public isn’t aware of our achievements. And when you look at the investment that goes into the UK’s infrastructure and major projects like the Olympics, the volume of the engineering component is astonishing. But it’s not promoted in the public arena or in universities anywhere near enough, so engineering is not respected as a profession. It doesn’t appear glamorous enough.”

In fact, glamour figures high on most suggestions of how to draw in more future engineers: “We’ve got to make the profession more sexy and appealing,” says Ling. “You couldn’t live without engineers today. Whatever you do from the moment you get up in the morning to the moment you go to bed, you are dependent on engineers across the field, from simple things like the packet of cereal to big things like St Mary Axe. The latter is a big impressive architectural feature, but it’s a geodetic form of construction, which Barnes Wallis used on the Vickers Wellington bomber in the thirties. These are the sorts of things we’ve got to bring to the fore.”

For Langley-Poole, it helps to take a more global perspective: “There is no engineering skills shortage in India – if anything, their education systems generate a surplus to the domestic requirement. Our challenge is that many of the people available don’t instantly match what the UK needs. They have the requisite base skills set but often need additional training in order to equip them to meet UK requirements.

“Ultimately, you can bring the people to the work or you can take the work to the people,” he says, arguing that Atkins’ strategy balances both approaches. “And there is a third option, which is to take the highly technical work and the skilled people to a location that is convenient to both, as we have done in our Global Design Centres in Sharjah and Bangalore.”

Of course, for some in the profession, there is a far more straightforward answer: “Introduce a more active approach in training graduates in all areas of the business; design and technical expertise and techniques, commercial awareness, project management, career and motivation strategies, etc,” suggests Alex Marshall, graduate Electrical Building Services consultant with Atkins in Dubai. “This should be high priority and strictly enforced. It’s a good and strongly recommended way to build up a strong graduate workforce with the short-term prospects of creating competent and independent chartered engineers.

“Push the graduates to extend their scholastic knowledge as well as what they learn from working on projects,” he adds. “Support into gaining a further degree or diploma is also a good selling point. It costs the company, but the returns are seen in the work of the engineer and the speed of his development.”

A woman’s touch

“I spent 40 years in the industry before I retired,” says Ling. “And in that time I met four female practising engineers.” The lack of women in engineering has been an issue for some time. Given the skills shortage, many are asking what is being done to take advantage of this largely untapped resource.

“I’m not aware of anything much that’s being done to bring more women into engineering,” says Julia Johnson, a senior engineer in Atkins’ highways section. “There are efforts at sixth form level, such as the Women into Science and Engineering (WISE) initiative – www.wisecampaign.org.uk – but this has been going for a long time and I’m not sure how widely it is known by schools and businesses.”

Griffiths points out that only around 20 per cent of those entering the engineering profession are women – compared with the 70 per cent that enter medicine and 80 per cent in psychology, for example.

“At Atkins, we do rather better than the average with about 25 per cent of the graduates we recruit being women,” Griffiths adds, “but like many other organisations in the sector, we don’t do as well as we’d like to in terms of developing and retaining this talent.”

Research conducted by Atkins in 2007 revealed that perception plays a major role in putting women off the profession: one-third of women surveyed by Atkins in 2007 said they were put off a career in the sector because they believe it is dominated by men (33 per cent). This figure rises to half (50 per cent) among recent graduates.

“I don’t know why engineering isn’t perceived as a job that is suitable for women,” says Atkins’ Tachtsi, one of three female engineers working in a team of around 30 men. “Women need to understand that being an engineer doesn’t necessarily mean working on-site all the time. In fact, as an engineer you might never go on-site – I don’t go on-site, for example – but if you do, it’s very exciting work. There are opportunities for women in this field, it is a respected profession and the rewards are there.”

Tachtsi highlights initiatives like the Inspire Awards (www.inspireevent.co.uk), sponsored by Atkins, which celebrates and encourages women to work in the built environment and raises the profile of engineering across the board. Two Atkins engineers were among the winners at the 2007 inaugural launch: Valerie Evans, director of Design and Engineering Services with Atkins, was named “Outstanding Achiever” and Arpinder Bansi, divisional manager with Atkins, was named “Inspirational Leader in the Civil Engineering category.

“It comes down to a lack of knowledge about what a career in engineering involves,” says Griffiths. “In fact, as well as strong analytical skills, it requires problem solving, team-building, communications, project management and many other skills that women tend to have in abundance.”

Where next?

Not everyone agrees the situation is quite as dire as some predict – for the moment at least.

“In terms of engineers per se, I’m an optimistic realist,” says Sir Peter Williams, former Chairman of the UK’s Engineering and Technology Board and now non-executive director of both Atkins and technology and engineering firm, GKN Plc. “The industrial base is comparatively limited; compared to sectors such as retail, banking and services, the manufacturing and high technology sectors account for a smaller proportion of UK GDP than in nations such as France and Germany. However, in terms of supply and demand, the UK is providing the marketplace with sufficient engineers and scientists.

“If you go right back to the academic seed base, at A-level stage I’m pretty positive. However, looking at the number of young people taking GCSEs in subjects such as physics, chemistry and maths, there could be a cloud on the horizon.”

According to Sir Peter, the growth of engineering-based companies such as Atkins is determined by the number of qualified engineers it can hire – “However, we clearly can’t get them all from within the UK.” This is why, in Sir Peter’s view, Atkins has expanded into places like Bangalore, the Gulf and Shanghai.

“Should we be producing more than the 2,500 civil engineers we currently do each year? While some within the engineering profession insist that universities should double their output of civil engineers, I don’t subscribe to that view,” he says. “I believe in a job market-economy link and that you can’t, in the words of Lady Thatcher, ‘buck the market’. The industry has evolved quite differently in the UK than for our cousins in the G8. Young people understand this and it conditions their whole approach to the jobs marketplace.

“Companies like Atkins understandably look to balance their UK operations with a significant presence overseas. However, that’s completely healthy and not a negative statement about availability in the UK. We’re still hiring excellent engineers, scientists and mathematicians in the UK, but it’s unreasonable to expect an employer’s market in which we can always satisfy all our requirements.”

There’s always a risk the market could be overtaken by companies operating in countries where skills shortages are less of an issue, Sir Peter argues, but in his view, “we have to be bolder and more self-confident than that. For example, Atkins has entered China because both the company and the country have something unique to offer each other.

“I don’t believe in crying over the decline in the contribution made by the manufacturing industry to the UK economy,” he concludes. “The fact is there are fewer people at the age of 18 taking A-level maths than 20 years ago. It’s an inevitable response of this generation.”

While the debate over the skills shortages continues in the UK and elsewhere, for Atkins’ Alun Griffiths, the path forward is clear: “Thoughtful organisations – Atkins among them – are acknowledging there is a potential problem and taking action on a number of fronts, from re-engineering the way work is planned and implemented to recruitment strategies.

“We must target the broader talent pools from outside the UK while redoubling our efforts to recruit the best of the best from within the UK’s universities. We must also play a proper role among the country’s schools and colleges so that young people have a better understanding of their career possibilities. If we do not take action today, we will pay the price tomorrow.”

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