Plant & Works Engineering

Looking beyond university for top engineering talent

Published:  25 September, 2012

With an increasingly tough economic climate, reported industry-wide skills shortage and increases in university tuition fees, the engineering industry is struggling to find suitably qualified recruits. Here, Mike Bridgefoot, head of registration and standards at the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) discusses why the industry needs to shift its focus from graduates towards alternative means for attracting and recruiting talent into engineering.


The UK is currently only producing 25 to 50% of the engineering graduates that the economy needs. Clearly, there is a significant problem here that demands a step change in the way people are brought into the engineering profession.

The Prime Minister, David Cameron has often underlined the importance of developing a tech-savvy workforce, yet a study by Skills Solutions, Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce’s training provider, which quizzed more than 150 engineering firms across the UK, found that the majority (80%) of engineering bosses are “completely unaware” of the level of financial support available from the government for apprenticeships. This is despite 87% of engineering employers from the same report saying they believe apprentices make “more motivated and satisfied” employees, and were prepared to appoint apprentices to management positions later on in their careers.

Combine these findings with the IET’s annual Skills and Demand in Industry report which gauges the level of skill in the engineering and technology sector and it is worrying reading. The report, which surveyed 400 businesses in the UK, found there was currently strong demand for new recruits, but that employers were finding it more difficult to recruit engineers than in 2011. While 58% of organisations planned to recruit new staff in the next 12 months, 29% of respondents said that they did not expect to be able to recruit suitably qualified engineers and technicians to meet their needs this year.

The two key reasons given for this were a lack of suitably qualified candidates and that candidates lacked the right experiences. The biggest skills gap among new recruits was said to be a lack of practical experience, with 31% of organisations reporting that graduates did not have sufficient skill in that area. This emphasises the need for getting engineers out in the field as early as possible. An effective way of achieving this is for more businesses to embrace apprenticeships and professional qualifications to find candidates with proven skills and competencies, to drive the industry forward, especially considering the news that university applications from UK students for courses starting this Autumn are down by 8.9% on last year (Source: BBC)

We should still encourage students to study STEM subjects but not view students that hold a degree above those with other recognised professional qualifications. The industry as a whole needs to acknowledge that there is a career ladder within engineering and people can join the industry in a number of places. By recruiting professionally registered, qualified engineers whose skills have been benchmarked, employers can be reassured they are finding the ‘right’ highly-skilled talent for their business.

One high profile organisation that is heavily in favour of apprenticeships and professional qualifications is Royal Mail. Royal Mail recruited 18 apprentices last year and is in the process of recruiting 16 advanced apprentices this year for its three year programme in which they are expected to achieve qualifications such as the B-Tech National Diploma in engineering operation, NVQ Level 3 in maintenance engineering and the EngTech professional registration.
Similarly, professional qualifications can open doors for employees, whether they are planning to stay with the same company and advancing internally, or moving to progress their career. It sets a high bar for achievement that engineers must meet, and achieving qualifications (such as CEng) is often viewed by employers as a mark of competence and commitment to the profession.

Michelle Watt, an Asset Improvement Engineer at Tata Steel is a Chartered Engineer at the age of just 26 and believes it is invaluable for her career progression. She commented: “Professional registration is very much a preferred requirement and is seen as an advantage pretty much everywhere you look in the engineering sector. It shows people you’re of a professional level, highlights your motivation to achieve and demonstrates your commitment and dedication to the profession.”
Alternatively, should a candidate choose the apprenticeship route into engineering it is clearly important that they have access to theoretical training as well as on-the-job training. The practical value they hold is incomparable to someone who has spent the same three years learning in a classroom, however an experienced (perhaps Chartered) mentor can help them through the more theoretical-based business and leadership aspects of the job.

Looking ahead

A general consensus is that a mixture of theoretical and on-the-job training is required for engineers. Both a graduate entry routes and an apprenticeship routes will benefit and, particularly with the increasing cost of degrees, the practical skills offered by apprenticeships could be a more attractive option for future engineers.

With the increasingly tough economic climate and upcoming tuition fee rise, future engineers may be looking for alternative ways to enter and progress in the industry - apprenticeships and professional qualifications provide an opportunity to do just this.

There are a number of benefits that professional qualifications bring to both engineers and their employers. Employees get clear goals to work towards, recognition of their skills and a key advantage when it comes to going for promotions and moving jobs. Employers on the other hand, get the benefit of external perception of a highly-skilled, top-class workforce. In addition, it was suggested that by supporting engineers in their professional qualifications, employers will get more motivated and engaged staff, invested in the business.


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