Engineering: skills or qualifications?

Posted on Thursday 7th November 2013
Michael-Grove

Not a week seems to pass without the national media reporting a shortage of engineers. This is not a criticism; it is in fact an achievement. What was once a very much overlooked issue is now quite rightly receiving the profile and attention it deserves. A strong, sustainable supply of high-quality engineers is essential if the UK is to meet its current and future skills needs for economic growth. 

So just what is the scale of this demand for engineers? There are many projections, all of which are consistent, but in its 2013 report, The State of Engineering, EngineeringUK indicates that engineering companies will have 2.74 million job openings by 2020, of which 1.86 million will need people with engineering skills. Approximately 87,000 of these vacancies each year will require individuals with degree-level qualifications in engineering, with further demand for around 69,000 people qualified at advanced apprenticeship or equivalent per year. 

So where are all these engineers going to come from? For many years, the number of young people choosing to study not only engineering,but also Science, Technology and Mathematics (STEM), was very much in decline.In recent times there has been a significant increase in demand for not just university-level courses (which are up over 20% in the last ten years in engineering and technology), but also for vocational programmes such as apprenticeships and BTECs. While this is testament to the hard work and dedication of those seeking to tackle the problem, even if such growth is sustained, this will not be enough to meet the UK's future engineering needs. 

To understand why, consider the following: at present the UK produces around 46,000 engineers at Level 4+ each year and 27,000 Level 3 apprentices. To meet the predicted 2020 needs we need to double our capacity to produce engineers and we need to do so immediately. An alternative approach is needed for producing those with the skills and knowledge to work in engineering and technology fields. This is not to say we should no longer focus upon encouraging young people to study engineering, this remains vital for raising the profile of engineering as a career choice. In particular, significant work is still needed to address the gender imbalance and change the negative perceptions of some parents and teachers towards engineering as a profession. 

Without substantial additional investment in further and higher education to increase the number of full-time places we cannot produce more engineers by this route alone. Perhaps we need to rethink the debate: do we need to focus more upon approaches that develop engineering skills rather than providing engineering qualifications? Clearly the two are linked, but thinking outside of the current qualifications framework and focusing upon skills means we can explore alternative approaches to education and training. 

What about the idea of conversion courses? Physicists and mathematicians possess similar skills to those of engineers, and so could one-year university-level courses be offered that provide graduates from these disciplines with essential engineering knowledge and experience? Such a model has operated successfully in other disciplines, law being the obvious example.It is often noted that a number of STEM graduates go into non-STEM professions,and conversion courses might be a way of encouraging more STEM graduates to remain in employment within these disciplines. The rise of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) presents an opportunity for alternative delivery and there is the essential, but not yet defined role for business and industry in working with education and training providers to recruit, retain and retrain the UK’s future generations of engineering talent. 

There are many possibilities for addressing this engineering skills gap. Let’s begin the dialogue together and explore what these might be.

Michael Grove is Director of the University of Birmingham’s STEM Education Centre and currently leads the ‘Education and Skills’ strand of the Institute for Advanced Studies Regeneration Economies project.