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Closing the skills gap

The skills gap has been the subject of many commentaries over the recent past. The problem of an aging engineering population, combined with a decrease in the number of people looking to follow engineering as a career, means there's a shortfall.
EngineeringUK summed up the problem in its report published at the end of 2009. According to its research, the UK needs to create 580,000 engineers in the next few years – replacing those who are close to retirement and to fill new jobs. This can only be done by attracting new entrants to the profession or by upskilling those from other sectors. That's a significant number of people and a figure that's not going to be attained overnight.

The solution, of course, is found at some point within the school system by positioning engineering as a vital and interesting career. That isn't happening and there are a number of reasons for that.
The bottom line is that too few school students are taking the so called STEM subjects – science, technology and maths.
A recent survey of 2000 A level and university students undertaken on behalf of Centrica has revealed that 55% would not consider a career in science, technology or energy. Media and entertainment jobs were more desirable, the study showed.
Similarly, a total of 17,442 students sat A level technology exams in 2009-10, compared to 33,822 taking media, film or TV studies, according to figures published by the Joint Council for Qualifications. While there was an increase in the number of pupils taking technology, maths and the three sciences, Sir James Dyson warned there was still a long way to go to satisfy business demand.
He said he was encouraged to see an increase in the number of students with strong science, engineering, technology and mathematics A levels, but pointed out these numbers need to be boosted. "For the UK to stay competitive," he said, "we require the right people with the right training."
Dyson is not immune from the skills shortage. The company is looking to recruit 350 engineers and, despite having received more than 4000 applications, it has only managed to fill 100 of the places so far. Reading between the lines, it would appear many of the applicants are simply not up to the job.
Similar warnings come from the Institution of Engineering and Technology – the IET. It says one third of engineering companies doubt they will be able to recruit enough suitably qualified professionals to meet their business needs.
According to the IET, approximately 20% of science related professional jobs in the UK are now filled by migrant workers and it says this is a sign that the skills gap could become 'unmanageable'.
The finding in the Centrica study that media and entertainment jobs are more desirable speaks volumes. The skills shortage is, in large part, down to an image problem – happiness, it would seem, can only be attained through such routes as the X Factor and Big Brother.
It is also a consequence of the belief that developing a service based economy, rather than one based on the production of goods, made sense. There is only so much money to be made by holding doors open for people. At last, it appears the Government has grasped this idea and its attempts to develop the UK's manufacturing and engineering sector should be supported.
Changing perceptions of manufacturing industry and of engineering will make turning the biggest supertanker seem easy. But that is what industry has to do if it is serious about getting the engineers it needs for the future.

Graham Pitcher

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