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Engineers 'in high demand'

Engineers are hard to come by. That's the overall conclusion of a survey undertaken by the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET).

The positive message from the annual 'Skills and Demand in Industry' survey was that over half of the 400 companies asked said that they were actively recruiting, but this was tempered by increasing difficulty in finding suitably qualified recruits.

In all the main categories it has become progressively more difficult to find the right engineers over the past three years. The most difficult positions to fill were for senior engineers with five to ten years experience, where nearly 80% of companies had difficulties filling the posts – up 28% from 2011. Recruiting engineering managers is equally becoming more difficult (46%) compared with a 2011 figure of 21%.

In fact 37% did not expect to find the right staff in the next 12 months. The main reasons for this being the lack of suitable qualified candidates (65%) and shortages in specific skills (50%).

Other notable findings included the lack of progress in attracting women into engineering. Only 6% of the engineering staff are female, a static figure over the past four years, and the number of engineering apprentices has dropped to just 1%. 23% of companies take no measures to promote gender diversity and a further 20% simply employ the best candidate, so 43% do not actively encourage female engineers.

Nigel Fine, IET chief executive, said: "Promoting engineering to women is particularly important given how few currently work as engineers, so it's disappointing to see that so many employers are taking no real action to improve diversity. They need to take urgent steps to improve recruitment and retention of women, for example by promoting flexible and part time working, together with planned routes of progression that can accommodate career breaks."

When asked specifically about measures to attract women into engineering, some companies did mention female ambassadors to schools (16%) and specific targeted campaigns (16%). However, when asked the question about how to address the shortage of engineers, the potential offered by the female half of the population was again ignored. Despite 59% of companies believing the shortage represented a threat to their business, 28% thought there was nothing they could do about it (see Fig 1), while 28% thought the most positive action would be to promote to graduates.

Fine added: "Demand for engineers in the UK remains high. Research from Engineering UK suggests we need to find 87,000 new engineers each year for the next decade, so now is the time to act."

Tim Fryer

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Reading this article, I was struck (rather substantially) by the total lack of any discussion of remuneration and changes therein over the last decade or so. In this, I must admit significant support for the view expressed in DaveD's comment immediately above. If something that you really want is in seriously short supply, the most obvious solution is to be willing to pay more for it!

Assuming we are talking about real engineers, as distinct from senior technicians, it is worth noting that many (even most) modern engineering degrees are 4-year courses leading to an MSc or similar. Add to this, the period of sixth-form study and prior motivated learning in the right direction, it strikes me as clear that salaries for engineers must be improved (or already be attractively good) over a period exceeding 6 years, before any change in the value-reward balance can make a good contribution to supply versus demand.

On top of that, engineering is a very wide field, requiring significant depth of knowledge in one's specialism, plus equally significant broad knowledge of general engineering principles; these include cost-benefit analysis, safety issues, procedures for ensuring adequate accuracy of both analysis and synthesis, and wider aspects including maintenance policy and energy efficiency.

It is also the case, in the modern world, that the skills learned on one's degree course do age (and so lose leading edge relevance) more rapidly on technological aspects than they used to. Thus the importance of the commitment of employers to ongoing learning (sometime referred to as CPD - though that term is often trivialised) and expansion of knowledge. This is a far better approach than dumping experienced engineers for somewhat more (temporarily) up-to-date beginners in the field. Consider that 4 years is spent being relevant for the next 10; clearly this cycle has to be repeated around twice more in a 40-year long technically-oriented career. That's over 25%, or over twelve weeks per year including on-the-job learning: dedicated to the improvement of one's personal totality of engineering skills. How many modern employers really take on board that sort of ongoing commitment to the sum of training (let alone its technological component)?

In looking at job advertisements, I am often struck by how ignorant are HR staff and agencies, on what really matters versus the latest concatenation of buzzwords. This is particularly relevant concerning software skills, where a wide grasp of programming and systems development is subjugated to the latest god-knows-what favourite software package or 'programming language' (because the recruiters certainly struggle to know what is the meaning and benefit of the 'skills' they call for). Software skills are widely and generally important in the modern world: but they are only a small proportion of the whole range of engineering skills that are relevant to modern society.

So can we perhaps take the view that employers of engineers must take a large proportion of the responsibility for those problems of insufficient skills with which they find themselves involved.

Best regards

Posted by: Nigel Sedgwick, 09/08/2014
There is a way to get more senior engineers - pay them a lot more. Most senior engineers are well established in their companies and will probably only look to move if a substantially better offer is available. Recruiters need to make their pay offers sufficiently enticing for senior engineers to consider a move. They are not likely to make a sideways move unless they are dissatisfied with their existing job. Once senior engineers are more mobile in the work place then there is markedly more fluidity in the marketplace with junior engineers moving up to take the vacant positions within their companies.

Posted by: DaveD, 07/08/2014

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