Employers are testing a new approach to closing the engineering skills gap

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The search and rescue helicopter angles steeply above Dorset’s Jurassic Coast, its downward-pointing radar capable of finding a single person who may be lost, floating in the English Channel.

For this demonstration flight, the weather is perfect, but as Mark Burnand, chief test pilot at Leonardo Helicopters explains, the AW101 is also able to track victims in rough seas long after the human eye lost them.

The AW101, or Merlin, is “a serious bit of kit”, Burnand said, and one that’s designed, built and certified entirely at Leonardo’s factory in Yeovil, Somerset.

But back in the field, Leonardo chief executive Adam Clarke admits that as aerospace moves into a new world of composite materials and unmanned passenger craft, the big challenge will be to keep it that way. .

“We can’t recruit enough people,” he said, despite having more than 130 apprentices. “We recruit people but they retire at the same rate. So we have to change the way we recruit.

Leonardo, who is in the West of England aerospace cluster which directly employs some 37,000 people and generates around £7billion a year for the economy, is far from alone.

An institution of engineering and technology investigation released last year, found that around half of engineering firms said they had struggled with a lack of skills, both within their existing workforce and in the job market globally. wider.

In 2019, even before the ‘great retirement’ triggered by Covid-19 saw record numbers of technically skilled over 50s leave the workplace, trade body EngineeringUK predicted an annual shortfall of between 37,000 and 59,000 graduate engineers.

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To help close this gap, the government has ordered colleges to consider the findings of its local skills improvement plansdeveloped by regional professional groups, so that training is better adapted to the needs of local industry.

It’s a welcome move according to Matt Tudge, who, as Business West’s head of skills planning, who published its PSL last monthfound that while large firms could invest in skills, cash-strapped small and medium-sized firms struggled more.

With less than 10% of UK graduates being engineers, compared to nearly 25% in Germany, according to the OECD, UK companies are vying for a smaller pool of talent.

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If the UK is to tackle its engineering skills shortage, Tudge added, it will need to change cultural attitudes towards technical skills, which are more respected in European countries such as Germany and the Netherlands.

“People still think engineering is dirt and wrenches and scratches under a car, but that’s just not the case anymore. We need to change perceptions,” Tudge added.

A recent investigation by EngineeringUK found that there is still a lot of work to be done, with less than a quarter of 11-19 year olds saying they heard about engineering careers from a guidance counsellor.

“A lot of young people aren’t exposed to these opportunities in science and technology – they find out when it’s almost too late, when they’re at university,” said Nicholas Davis, skills manager at the Royal Aeronautical Society. “This is where the problem starts and where it could be solved.”

Making engineering more attractive to young women – just over 12% of engineering employees are women, according to EngineeringUK – will also be part of the solution.

Across town, at Yeovil College, where Leonardo trains many of his interns, Cerys Flagg, 18, a mechanical engineering apprentice, was one of only four women out of 34.

Cerys Flagg, Mechanical Engineering Apprentice, Yeovil College
At Yeovil College, where Leonardo trains many of his interns, Cerys Flagg, 18, a mechanical engineering apprentice, is one of only four women out of 34. © Jim Wileman/FT

“When you’re in school you can do carpentry, but they have very limited resources, they don’t really promote engineering and say it’s a good job,” he said. she declared. “And for girls, it’s intimidating because it’s a male-dominated environment.”

Mark Bolton, head of the college, said technical colleges are working to rebrand the engineering sector, deepen engagement with children and liaise with industry to identify the skills of the future , where ‘hybrid engineers’ will not work with hammers and wrenches but ‘cobots and robots’.

But after two decades of reductions in real terms, he adds, investment in training remains essential. “We also face a skills shortage,” he noted. “Our highest-paid lecturer last March earned £34,500 – that’s only £2,000 more than these children will earn at the end of their four-year apprenticeship.”

Another piece of the puzzle, according to Graham Herries of the Institution of Engineering and Technology, is the disproportionate emphasis on traditional degrees over other types of training.

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“We encouraged the university route, but we don’t need everyone to have an engineering degree,” he said. “We are still terribly short in all areas.”

The Government has said it will invest an additional £3.8billion in skills over the duration of this parliament, launching skills boot camps, the adult numeracy program and a new level T to accompany levels A and generate a “parity of esteem”. for technical education.

But UK businesses also need to invest more, according to Chancellor Rishi Sunak who said in his annual CBI dinner address in May that employers “spend only half the European average” on training their employees.

Among the current generation of Leonardo trainees, it is accepted that different routes may ultimately lead to the same place.

Anthony Chiu, 20, got 10 A’s and A*’s in GCSE but did not apply to university, opting instead to start straight away as a Leonardo apprentice.

Anthony Chiu
Despite getting a string of A’s and A*’s at GCSE, Anthony Chiu chose an apprenticeship at Leonardo over going to university © Jim Wileman/FT

After seven years, Chiu will have an engineering degree and find himself in much the same place as a graduate student, just minus the college debts. “I always wanted a degree,” he says, “but I was drawn to apprenticeships even though all my friends went to college.”

For Clarke, who has risen through the corporate ranks, there is no silver bullet to address the UK’s skills gap.

It advocates a three-pronged approach that combines the return of science-skilled people to engineering, early schooling and broadening the approach to include women and those with broader abilities. “It’s not just about math,” he says.

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