What do we do about the skills shortage?

6 mins read

There is a clearly defined problem; the UK's engineering sector needs more people. Apart from the fact the sector isn't fully staffed, more people are retiring from it than are entering it.

If the UK really wants to refocus itself as a manufacturing economy, these issues must be addressed – despite the danger of 'STEM fatigue'. So we find ourselves in that typically British position of looking to allocate blame, whilst adopting that typical engineering stance of 'how do we find a solution?'.

The tendency is to look at the components and stakeholders, then point the finger of blame. The most important part of this jigsaw – young people – are the resource we need to use responsibly, but they have a myriad of options and if engineering isn't attractive, they will go elsewhere.

Some believe today's youth is a listless, directionless being with a sense of entitlement, but there are clearly those with energy, clarity of thought and creativity and technology sectors must compete for their attention.

Parents clearly have a key role to play. In bygone days, it was more likely that a parent's job involved making or producing 'stuff'. In 1982, according to the Office of National Statistics, 5.5million people – 21.5% of the workforce – were employed in manufacturing. By 2014, this had fallen to 2.6m (7.8%). Just a generation ago, three times as many parents had a job which involved 'making'.

So we have to turn to the 'usual suspects' – educators and industry – if things are going to change. And things do have to change: whatever we are doing is not working – or is not working yet.

This urgent need to rebuild engineering and technology only really appeared when the financial sector revealed itself to be so vulnerable seven years ago. So schemes put in place to influence young children will only be proven successful if those children make it to being engineering professionals.

However, there are indicators of progress. According to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, 628,000 students enrolled in science based subjects in 2013/14, of whom 99,000 were specifically studying engineering and technology, These healthy sounding figures need to be slashed – typically by a third – as they cover all students in higher education. However, the numbers are rising – in 2009/10, there were 89,000 engineering students.

Even so, we are still not on track to meet the requirement for numbers of new graduates. Equally, apprenticeship starts in 2013/14 across all sectors reached 440,000. While this is well up on five years ago, it is still 13.7% less than in 2012/13.

More positively, the numbers of students taking Physics A level has risen to 5% of all A Level students, a rise of 22%, while the percentage taking Maths is 12.4%, an increase of 19.2%.

It's a foundation on which to build, but the problem clearly remains unresolved.

Blame the universities

Apart from universities not producing enough graduates, some employers say those graduates' skill sets are not always good enough. Some 'soft skills' – like team working, management, communications and marketing – are often lacking, but so too can be hands on skills. Are universities churning out less competent graduates?

Professor Anthony Finkelstein, Dean of the Faculty of Engineering Sciences at University College London, believes that is not easy to establish. "We are faced with a challenge. There is a limited amount of time to teach students and how we balance technical and soft skills in that time is a curriculum challenge.

"The changing nature of how students are prepared prior to university has exerted further pressure and that is changing the things we are doing and can do. They come to us with better self organisation and self management skills, but poorer technical problem solving skills. So schools are preparing students differently; not better nor worse."

The consequence is that much of the first year at university can be taken up by bringing undergraduates up to standard. Engineering expertise then needs to be imparted during remaining two undergraduate years.

Or blame the schools….

Budding engineers need to make the first steps on their career path at school. There are some excellent schemes designed to provide this spark at an early age – for example, Primary Engineer (primaryengineer.com) – but the key time will be when the student chooses which GCSEs to take. Maths is compulsory, but if physics, computing – or at least design and technology (D&T) – are not among the choices, a potential engineer may have been lost.

One problem is that sciences and maths are hard. In a child's formative years, it may be that these subjects offer an unwelcome academic challenge, where problem solving approach may better attract budding engineers.

At the recent STEMtech event (www.stemtechconference.com), conference chair Roland Meredith, an associate at schools consultancy SCS, said there is 'a tyranny of subject based learning'. "Engineering is the important bit – it is the bit that joins up the S, T and M in STEM."

And yet engineering is not taught directly in schools.

Prof Finkelstein commented: "I believe all the elements of engineering need to be introduced to children in an exciting and inspirational way. There are big efforts going into making that happen, but the creative dimensions of engineering also require positive and inspirational teaching of the design elements."

Also speaking at STEMtech was Mike Brown, director of academic programmes at Siemens, who added: "You need a cross curricular approach to STEM. You need to think that students will be using the very latest technology and we need to prepare them for it. It is important they have technological literacy and know how to apply it."

The demands made of teachers are manifold – and constant tinkering with the curriculum by politicians does not help. But the principal demand is to make sure that performance criteria are met; students need to pass their exams. So cross-curricular or extra-curricular activities are often not possible, even though these activities could provide the spark in a nascent engineer.

To a degree, the hands of the education system are tied.

Or is it industry to blame?

Manufacturing was frequently at the heart of a community and offered an obvious, sometimes inevitable, employment path. While the job of a coal miner may have emphasised the relationship between hard graft and producing something, it could not be further removed from that of the modern design engineer. Unfortunately, modern engineers can be invisible to the younger generation.

The finger of blame could, therefore, point at industry for not reaching out and promoting itself. Somehow, children need to find out that making things work, solving problems and designing the products on which society depends can be an exciting and rewarding career and one that is open to all, that comes in different guises, with something to captivate children with all sorts of different interests.

Teachers are not engineers and it is engineers who need to demonstrate what is on offer. Astonishingly, there are some 2500 schemes in the UK that do just that. At STEMtech, Sir Michael Arthur, president of Boeing UK and Ireland, described a project it was running with six schools, each of which is building a fully functional aeroplane – two have already been completed and flew at the Farnborough Air Show. He said one of the advantages of this sort of project was that 'students came into contact with a very diverse group of adults with a variety of experience and skills'.

Julie Collins, education liaison manager at Renishaw, summed it up: "It is vitally important to Renishaw as a business that we engage with education." On top of its record in providing apprenticeships and pre-university placements, Renishaw offers work experience and goes directly to schools in its Gloucestershire catchment area, always, Collins stressed, trying to work within the school curricula.

Many more companies are doing great things in various schools and many more are willing to do so. But these offers of help are not always getting through.

Sir Michael noted that Boeing approached 30 schools and only got past the school secretary on two occasions. Headteachers – typically a target for such offers of engineering help – may have such bulging inboxes or overprotective school secretaries that they never get to see these offers.

Science and D&T teachers, probably be the champions of such schemes, may never get to hear of them either. One such teacher said they were in an impossible position; not only did they not get information on all projects, but it was also impossible to assess those they did. There was no standardisation about what the school needed to pay, how much time would be needed, what the engineering company was offering, how experienced they were at working with children and how reliable would they be – businesses, after all, need to put their business first.

Most of all, what value would they get out of it? School time is a much fought over commodity; there are those that believe with equal passion that schools should spend more time promoting, sport, languages, music and more. It is a minefield.

Is anyone to blame?

The penny seems to have dropped with all stakeholders that promoting STEM to children is vitally important. Despite occasional bouts of finger pointing, it appears each sector is making an effort to up their game. But there is still no real evidence that it is working.

In Prof Finkelstein's opinion: "It is a complex multifaceted problem and a whole range of things are tied together. These range from societal cultural attitudes towards engineering and technology and the way the sciences and mathematics are taught to attitudes to gender and culture. One clear way to address the problem of supply would be to attract a much broader and diverse range of people to engineering.

"This is a 25 year project, not an 18 month project. That means industry, professional institutions, universities, further and vocational educators, school educators, cultural institutions, all have to work in a unified way and as a partnership."

And maybe that is what is lacking. Not the intention, but the implementation. Unquestionably, there is value in having relevant input from a local engineering company, but standardising that on a national level would result in loss of impact. However, engineering firms could tailor their input to fit in with what schools require and schools would have a database into which they could dip to to find suitable partners.

Such a central resource could be STEMNET (www.stemnet.org.uk), which claims to serve thousands of schools through its 27,000 STEM Ambassadors. Its objectives are aligned with what industry and government perceives they want – but it's not working.

If professional bodies, engineering companies and government departments all channelled their support through this one network, could the issue be grabbed by the scruff of the neck? Would we then have the clarity and direction that will enable all the pieces of this jigsaw to be assembled to create the picture we all want to see?