Brain Drain: Dealing With the UK’s Engineering Hiring Cliff

The UK Engineering industry is facing a serious discrepancy between the numbers of newly trained engineers entering the profession versus the numbers of people retiring. As more and more engineers begin to look at retirement, this means that the pool of qualified engineers is decreasing with time. As a result of hiring biases that favour older and more experience engineers to newly qualified ones, this also means that the pool of preferred, experienced engineers is practically evaporating before employers’ eyes.

The UK engineering sector is incredibly important to the UK economy; it is therefore of vital importance that the approaching hiring cliff that faces the engineering sector is averted.

Looking at the numbers

Total number of registered Incorporated Engineers and Chartered Engineers (1986-2013):

graph of engineer registrations

Looking at the numbers of new engineers actually registering, this has seen a continual decline since the late 90’s, with a significant downturn in the rate of registration from 2003.

Eligibility versus vocation

Only 6% of UK students are studying engineering related subjects. Compounding the issue, the majority of those who are qualified and eligible to enter the field are unable to find work due to lack of experience or decide to work elsewhere.

In younger age groups, despite being eligible to register as engineers, most choose not to; virtually nobody eligible at the age bracket of 20-24, less than 3% of eligible candidates aged 25-29 and less than 7% aged 30-34 are actually registering as engineers.

Of the 15,000 UK domiciled graduate engineers qualifying each year, only 7000 go into engineering, with the rest going into other sectors. Therefore, the majority of people trained to become engineers are turning their backs on the profession.

Uneven employer attraction

The lack of qualified people is a problem that affects the industry at large, but the problem is not spread evenly. Many large, prestigious companies have the marketing nous and budgets to reach graduates. However, for SMEs the sheer lack of supply means that they often see the best graduates heading towards larger firms.

Of those graduates that do make the move to industry, the perception is that the quality of graduates is still fairly high – only 34% employers state that they were dissatisfied with recruits. So primarily, this is a problem of labour supply.

The worst of the hiring cliff is still yet to come; despite this, a 2015 report by Engineering UK found that:

  • 48% of engineering companies are having difficulty finding suitable senior engineers
  • Between 2012 and 2022 we will need 1.6 million people working in engineering jobs.
  • There are only around 100,000 people entering the profession at all levels each year - a shortfall of 30,000 a year when compared to the ??

What are the causes?

Perception of engineering amongst the young

There are many areas to point blame; one potential cause is that the perception of engineering that kids have at school is inaccurate. The perception tends to be that engineering is dirty, or exclusively related to “engines”, or that the job involves welding or fixing equipment. Most children conflate engineering with maintenance, or working as a mechanic, and have no idea of the breadth and scope that an engineering job can offer.

This is in spite of the fact that engineering involves many core skills that children show an interest in – new technology, drawing/designing, making, building and finding out how things work.

The IET’s ‘Engineer a Better World’ study found this view was prevalent not just among children but among their parents as well. It’s clear that engineering has a major PR problem when it comes to presenting itself as an exciting career path for young people.

Lack of promotion of engineering careers to graduates

We’ve already mentioned how SME’s and struggling to engage with graduates. Equally significant is that larger firms with the money and resource to do so are still aiming many of their recruitment marketing campaigns at older, more experienced engineers, as opposed to taking a longer term view that involves hiring raw talent to train to fit.

Despite the huge demand for engineering jobs and the lack of engineering candidates, it’s still not a candidate’s market. Many find themselves in fierce competition to actually get a job with a major firm. Smaller firms don’t have the ability to attract these candidates, either through being in unpopular locations, or not having the marketing clout to reach the right people

Looking to the Future

Some of the ideas that have been presented by industry include:

Increasing higher education capacity

Universities are nearing capacity; even if there was a huge increase in the levels of interest in engineering from students and young people, university places on engineering courses are relatively scarce and are fought over by applicants. The government would most likely need to act to ensure there are enough university places available to provide the skills the industry needs

Higher level apprenticeships

These are already available, but compared to applicants heading down the university route, higher level apprenticeships are comparatively underutilised. The vocational approach is well regarded by employers and a wider roll out of such schemes would help to offset the shortages of candidates

Industrial placements

These already exist, but again, take-up is not high with the majority of students not taking a placement. Wider roll out of placements may help to give new engineers some of the experience that they need to hit the ground running at a new firm.

Starting Early

Taking steps to redress the shortcomings in how engineering is portrayed to children will be invaluable in increasing interest in the profession from the young, and planting the seed of future professional aspirations.

Partnering with educators

Many universities work closely with engineering companies when it comes to their educational programs; an excellent example of this is Formula Student, run by the institution of mechanical engineers and involving partnership with many UK educational institutions. Such initiatives help expose promising graduates to engineering employers early on. Taking part in such schemes can provide a useful boost to those looking to secure a favourable relationship with the best in upcoming talent.

It’s clear that the industry is facing major change; equally, it’s clear that there are many options for employers to take to respond. Whether it’s getting involved in advanced apprenticeships, working with educators, or offering industrial placements, engineering firms have many options to counter the changing demographics of engineering.

Engineering Jobs

If you are looking for the latest engineering jobs, or if you need to find the best candidates, NCE Jobs offers specialist civil engineering roles in a number of disciplines. If construction engineering is your thing, our sister site is geared towards construction engineering jobs.

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