Is there REALLY a skills shortage in the engineering industry, or are employers just not paying up?
Published: 21 Jul 2015 By Georgina Bloomfield
It is common knowledge among the sector these days that there’s a skills shortage in the engineering industry. We’re told that 50% of the entire workforce is due to retire by 2020. How are we going to fill the positions if nobody has the skills? This is what employers are saying to us; more needs to be done to encourage young’uns to take up engineering and technology jobs if the sector is going to be able to fulfil its need. But actually, is there more to it than meets the eye?
40% of the IET's 400 employers indicated that they have trouble recruiting engineering graduates.
Marcus Body, a consultant in the Brand and Insight team at employer marketing company ThirtyThree (and engineering graduate), believes that employers need to stop shifting the blame onto jobseekers’ skills, or apparent lack of. Let’s start with degrees. Does a degree have any value anymore? Marcus says: “There’s an enormous elephant in the room in graduate recruitment, which is that some universities are better than others. Someone with a 2:2 from Imperial in Engineering is going to be miles better than applicants with firsts from most other universities.” This implies that you could be studying engineering right now at university and already be at a disadvantage if your institution isn’t prestigious enough. He goes on to say that: “The reality is that first stages of screening are done by people - either in-house or at third party suppliers - who know nothing about engineering, so they will use bonkers criteria, from degree grade through to spelling.” If this is the case, then it’s no surprise when companies have problems with recruiting a new generation of engineers and technicians. Could it be that companies are simply being far too fussy with their criteria? They cannot expect a graduate to be able to replace someone who’s about to retire - and has probably been in the job for over thirty years - like-for-like.
According to The IET’s Annual Skills Survey for 2014, where they interviewed 400 employers from a range of engineering and IT organisations across the UK and asked them about their recruitment plans and experiences, approximately 40% of its respondents indicated that they have trouble recruiting engineering graduates. When asked why they don’t expect to be able to recruit suitable candidates over the next 4 to 5 years, over 70% of respondents said it was due to lack of suitably qualified candidates, and half of the respondents said shortages or difficulties with specific skills. The worrying term used here is the word ‘specific’. How specific are companies willing to get with jobseekers’ requirements?
On the other hand, apprenticeships seem to be increasingly popular among companies looking for fresh talent, which is reassuring. The IET’s Annual Skills Survey says that over the next five years, over half answered that they believe they will employ more apprentices in technical roles than they have in the past. Marcus Body isn’t surprised by this statistic. He says: “Apprenticeships are really taking off – loads of good ones in engineering, and employers are keen. The difficulty is in getting the infrastructure together to manage those apprentices – trainers, supervisors etc.” Additionally, First Secretary of State and Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne has announced in the summer 2015 Budget that there would be 3 million apprenticeships by 2020. Over a third of respondents in the 2014 Skills Survey said that they would focus more on apprentices and graduates when recruiting the people they need in the next four to five years – so the demand could be there very soon, which is good news for graduates.
Graduates still face a lot of competition, and not just in the UK. Over 20% of the 400 employers interviewed in the IET’s Annual Skills Survey suggested that they would look to recruit from within the EU to meet their needs. Could this be because UK graduates are too picky, or because EU candidates see working in the UK engineering industry as a top opportunity?
"The reality for a lot of businesses is that they need to get better at recruiting.”
At the end of the day, these things come down to money. Marcus Body reckons that if the UK industry offered a higher salary, there wouldn’t be any shortages at all: “Sectors nick the best graduates with more money. Before we can declare a skills shortage, we should double the salary offered and see if they’re still unfillable.” However, companies are reluctant to use this as a tactic to lure in graduates. Less than 20% of the IET’s survey respondents said they would create more attractive salaries when asked how they would recruit the people they need over the next 4 to 5 years.
There’s also one more area where any shortages in the engineering industry can be rooted: education. There are plenty of news stories out there saying that schools need to work harder to attract students towards STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths). However, does the ‘STEM’ discussion need to really come to an end? Marcus states that the whole discussion of ‘STEM’ as one thing entirely unhelpful. “There is no such thing as a “STEM” employee. There are areas that are harder to recruit (like very specific disciplines of engineering), and areas where we have a surplus – e.g. the 20,000 per year psychology graduates we produce and don’t have psychology jobs for. The statistics are terrible as we are conflating figures for all sorts of areas together. I’m sure there are pockets of genuine skills shortage, but it’s certainly not across all STEM. The reality for a lot of businesses is that they need to get better at recruiting.”
It seems the consensus is quite uncertain. It can be debated that companies are using the skills shortage argument when in reality they should spend more time and effort recruiting or luring graduates with better salaries. On the other hand, when companies are looking towards recruiting from elsewhere in the EU, graduates need to act fast if they want to beat the competition. Some companies are ahead of the game by offering more apprenticeships to get staff up to a suitable standard before the predicted retirement influx in 2020. There is no shortage of actual people. Applications to study engineering at UK universities having increased by seven per cent on the previous year. On the other hand if businesses want to replace staff due to retire; they’re going to need to give a little slack on the application process.
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