March 06, 2017

UK education system 'will not fulfil the needs of the engineering sector by 2025'

UK needs more than 20,000 new engineers each year; they need to be digitally fluent, focused on Artificial Intelligence and on opportunities in the energy and biomedical sectors

Almost two-thirds (63 percent) of engineers believe that the UK education system will not meet the needs of the engineering sector by the middle of the next decade unless reforms are made, while 13 percent think it will.

According to a new survey of more than 1,150 members of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers undertaken in collaboration with the Tata group, 70 percent said that ‘understanding of an engineer’s job’, together with ‘the image of engineering’ (68 percent) were the two biggest barriers to young people choosing an engineering career. 

When asked how the UK education system should change to boost the supply of new engineers, 57 percent said ‘focus on Maths, Physics and Theory’ was the most crucial factor, followed by ‘more hands-on work’ and ‘greater emphasis on industry and vocation’. Amongst 18-24 year olds, however, the order was reversed: 74 percent saw ‘more hands-on work’ as the number one priority; ‘Maths, Physics and Theory’ was prioritised by just under half.

When it came to lifelong learning, digital skills were highly valued, with almost half (48 percent) of existing engineers choosing ‘Data Analytics’, 47 percent saying ‘Connectivity’ and one-third saying ‘Artificial Intelligence’ would be the most important digital skillsets of the next decade. At present, more than one third (35 percent) of engineers said their companies have to source ‘CAD design and product development skills’ from the EU, while 25 percent of respondents said ‘software development’ skills were necessary to source from Europe.

More than 1.8 million additional engineers and qualified technicians will be needed by 2025 to meet existing and growing demand for skills across Britain, according to Engineering UK; there is currently a shortfall of at least 20,000 UK-trained engineers every year. The engineering sector as a whole currently accounts for 26 percent of GDP and more than 5.7 million jobs.

Energy (64 percent), Biomedical (42 percent) and Aerospace (38 percent) emerged as the top three sectors that engineers believed held the most opportunities for future growth – with ICT and software a close fourth (35 percent). Power and energy (42 percent) came top in a list of sectors that engineers thought should be a focus for UK R&D, as well as the type of infrastructure investment most likely to drive value for the UK (73 percent). Other infrastructure priorities included Rail (52 percent), Road (34 percent) ICT (32 percent) and Airports (31 percent).

When it came to countries the UK should emulate, 81 percent of engineers thought Germany had the best industrial strategy, while China (40 percent), Japan (36 percent) and South Korea (29 percent) also scored strongly.

Dr David Landsman OBE, executive director of Tata Limited, said:
“As the UK charts a course for itself outside the EU, a thriving engineering sector is critically important to our future prosperity as a nation. To achieve all this we need to boost the numbers of home grown engineers – which means radically re-shaping both how engineering is perceived and respected, and how our young people are taught. Unless we take action now, we will be faced with a severe shortage of engineering talent which will act as a drag on future economic growth.

“The new Industrial Strategy is a very welcome step in the right direction, as is the government’s clear commitment to prioritising infrastructure spending and improved technical education as part of its blueprint for growth. Based on this research and our experience, we believe the government and the broader engineering community should focus on three strategic areas of activity – long term investments in infrastructure; enhancing the status of engineers; and developing world-class engineering talent.

“Tata has been active in the UK since 1907 and will continue to play a proactive role in supporting this agenda, not just by providing training and learning opportunities for thousands of UK employees but by working with partners to pioneer new ways of teaching skills and engaging young people with STEM careers.”

Dr Colin Brown, engineering director, Institution of Mechanical Engineers, said:
“In our increasingly technological age engineering is more important now than ever.

“As the UK gears up to leave the European Union, we urgently need to raise our game in developing the highly-skilled, technically-trained workforce to underpin our Industrial Strategy, build new infrastructure and secure our future economy.

“This report offers some valuable insight from Tata and the Institution’s members on key issues, as seen by engineers, as the UK rolls out its new Industrial Strategy. What is clear is that the UK’s engineering skills shortage is a huge challenge and one that cannot be tackled by engineers and industry alone. We need to entice more young people into engineering by getting parents, teachers, employers and education specialists on board to bring about the culture change necessary. A first step is seeing engineering as a people focused, creative and socially beneficial activity.”