Critical Engineering Skills For the Future: Readying for the Fourth Industrial Revolution in the UK

about 10 months ago by Lianne Frith

Engineering is vital to the UK’s economy: it provides quality employment alongside some vital solutions to major global challenges. However, the UK, similarly to the rest of Europe, has been experiencing a skills gap. Faced with the fourth industrial revolution and more, will the UK have the volume of engineering talent it needs to remain a key player?

The Perkin’s Review of Engineering Skills

November 2019 marked the six-year anniversary of the Perkin’s Review by what was then the Department for Business, Innovation, and Skills. The report’s core focus was on where the UK stood in terms of building the skills to meet the demands within the engineering industry.

The report highlighted the key issues within the education system, with the primary problem being the supply of skills, described in the review as a ‘leaking pipeline’ system. While efforts were in place throughout the education and training system, people were being lost at every step of the way. The recommendations were clear: to increase the number of young people pursuing careers in engineering and to ensure they were as equipped as possible to excel within the industry.

 

Students attending a robotics class.

A school robotics lab project sits in the foreground as, behind it, students attend a class in engineering. 

 

Addressing the Supply of Skills for Engineering in the UK

A lot has happened since the said 2013 review: the environment in which engineers operate has evolved; a year-long campaign was launched in 2018 to tackle the engineering skills gap; and there have been significant changes in the system for the development and supply of engineering talent.

At the end of 2018, the UK engineering profession examined the progress made by the government and the engineering community. A new report was compiled by the Royal Academy of Engineering, called the Perkin’s Review Revisited, in which the reported improvements include a number of schemes that show early success:

General Partnerships

EnginneringUK, the Royal Academy of Engineering, and the wider community have pulled together under the umbrella of Tomorrow’s Engineers to bring together a go-to place for impactful engineering programs.

Government Support

The UK government has provided ‘enterprise advisors’ to support careers leaders within schools, alongside its ‘Careers strategy’ programme to connect educational establishments with employers.

The ‘This is Engineering’ Campaign

A year-long campaign to present a positive image of engineering to 13 to 18 year-olds via social media.

The Gender Balance Project

A government-funded campaign that has had some success in increasing female uptake of A level physics.

The ENTHUSE STEM Insight Scheme

A professional development campaign that has offered many placements to teachers and ensured the creation of lead schools to drive improvements in Physics teaching.

Vocational Training

T levels have been established to create a vocational alternative to A levels for 16 to 19 year-olds, offering such students a 45-day work placement.

The Apprenticeships Diversity Champions Network

A campaign that aims to increase the number of women choosing engineering apprenticeships.

The Teach Too Scheme

A programme to encourage collaboration between teachers and industry (placements are offered for teachers and funding provided so cover is in place).

The Augar Review

A review that looks into the issues of access, quality, choice, and value for money for all higher education courses.

 

Indeed, there have been several notable developments since the original Perkins review—nevertheless the UK continues to experience an engineering skills challenge. 

For instance, while the said 2018 ‘This is Engineering’ campaign certainly has helped to bring greater coherence to engineering within schools and has given impetus to improved coordination—there remains an inherent need for more—to ultimately both increase the volume and diversity of skilled workers entering the industry and meet changing demands.

 

Two women sitting beside each other.

There is an inherent need to increase both volume and diversity of skilled workers in the engineering industry. Image Credit: Pexels.

 

Necessary Improvements to Reduce the Skills Gap

The Royal Academy of Engineering estimates that there are currently around six million people working in engineering and other technology roles across all industries. However, the forecasts are that 124,000 engineers and technicians are required every year to meet core engineering demand through to 2024. Engineering UK predicts an annual shortfall of up to 59,000. Engineering businesses need to be able to recruit staff with the right skills to meet their business objectives—a barrier which has still not been overcome.

As part of the review’s current analysis of the shortfall, several recommendations have been made:

Recruit From a Full Talent Pool

Employers need to take a data-driven approach to improve recruitment and increase retention of underrepresented groups.

Improve Teacher Retention

The government needs to review public perceptions of teaching as a profession amongst graduates and should try to introduce careers for dual teaching professionalism.

Protect One’s Professional Development

High-quality professional learning has been shown to boost retention; therefore, teachers should have a funded and protected entitlement to one’s continual professional development required each year.

Review the Post-16 Academic Education Pathway

A detailed review is needed to create a broad and balanced curriculum that gives young people opportunities to study engineering subjects—especially as this will encourage higher entry into engineering higher education.

Implement Visible Government Leadership

An engineering champion should sit as a member of parliament and build an advisory group of engineering stakeholders to address long-standing skills and diversity challenges.

Recruit International Staff and Students

UK universities must ensure the country remains a popular destination by both minimising the hurdles involved for overseas applicants when they attempt to obtain their visas, as well as by increasing the timespan of post-study work visas (to be comparable to—or even longer than—that of competing nations).

Secure the Upskilling of Engineers and Technicians

With the increasing digitalisation of all aspects of engineering, there needs to be a coherent approach to professional development that ensures the engineering workforce is capable of exploiting technological advances.

 

Ultimately, it is the development and support of the UK’s education and training systems that will help reduce the skills gap: education forms the foundation of economic success and future security within the engineering sector.

 

An engineer controlling a manufacturing robot with a tablet.

The future of engineering is dependent on digital technologies. Pictured: an engineer controls a manufacturing robot with a tablet. 

 

What Technologies Need to be Developed for the Future?

In the future, engineering will drive technological progress, which gives the UK a significant opportunity. The UK has, to date, been renowned for designing and making things that the global economy wants to buy. But, to continue, high-skilled long-term jobs need to be encouraged within the economy. And this is before considering the demand for technology within larger world challenges still. Engineering skills will play a crucial role in providing food, energy, and clean water, and altogether creating practical solutions for sustainability and housing for an ever-growing and ageing population.

While we know there is an annual shortfall of engineers, the total doesn’t account for sector-specific skills (such as high-integrity welders for nuclear, or systems engineers for aerospace). The demand for engineers is driven further by the fast pace of technological change. The Made Smarter review of industrial digitalisation predicts that 90% of all jobs will require digital skills within the next 20 years. The greatest barrier to industrial digital technology adoption will be the lack of skills.

 

Will the UK Meet its Engineering Labour Goals?

To deliver on the government’s strategy, a strong contingent of engineering skills will be required. The very nature of engineering is changing: engineers and technicians need to upgrade their skills to take advantage of the opportunities that the fourth industrial revolution will bring. It’s vital that the UK continues to push forward and improve its educational and technical training systems. And, while strong impetus is required within schools, colleges and universities, a further push is needed in lifelong learning and professional development.

The UK has started to put the building blocks in place to increase the uptake of engineering, widen the talent pool, and improve retention. It must continue to drive initiatives forward to encourage girls to study STEM subjects, to build high-quality vocational pathways—and to altogether ensure that UK higher education delivers on its promises.

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