The engineering sectors ongoing battle with the skills shortage

9th Nov 2022

It is no secret there is a recognised skills shortage within the engineering sector, skilled engineers are increasingly sought after and there just simply are not enough engineers to go around. There is no better time to discuss the sector’s skill shortage than Tomorrow’s Engineering Week (7 to 11 November 2022), the week aims to highlight inspirational engineers and technicians to inspire future generations.

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Due to the shortage, ongoing technology and infrastructure developments are being impacted by the lack of new budding engineers and technicians. Not only are the ‘traditional’ jobs lacking in staff but the need for multidisciplinary engineers working in fields such as renewable technology are also being impacted. 

A recent study by CIHT (Chartered Institution of Highways and Transportation), Transportation Professional and T&RS consultancy found that three-quarters (74.4%) of respondents believe the skills shortage is by far the biggest challenge facing the work force in the next three years. Almost half (48.7%) said an ageing workforce is one of the biggest challenges as experienced staff reach retirement age and take a wealth of expertise with them.  

Others highlighted issues including high staff turnover, low salaries and the lure of better-paying industries or management positions. “Good engineers end up being managers, where their engineering expertise is largely being wasted,” said one respondent. “We’re constantly losing some of the best engineers to management positions, which are more highly paid.” 

The shortage is also going to affect the world in other ways, in 2020 the Global Engineering Capability Review claimed that the skills gap will affect the United Nations sustainable development goals in terms of climate action and sustainable cities. The review recognised that engineering helps countries achieve UN goals but without a pipeline of talent with the right level of skills these goals will not be met.  

The countries producing engineering talent is also changing. Typically, engineers were drawn from Europe and the USA, however, more recently there has been an increase in engineers being produced from nations including Southeast and West Asia. This has resulted in a shift in where engineering is happening globally. 

In the UK children learn about science and maths but the connection to engineering and the purpose of these topics isn’t always made clear. The application of these subjects to the world we live in is crucial as we work towards achieving net zero. 

In November of last year Professor Danielle George MB, immediate Past President of the Institution of Engineering and Technology sent an open letter to the Prime Minster. The letter appealed to the Government to work together with educators and involve engineering in current STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) learning in the curriculum. More than 150 individuals and institutions including the Ministry of Defence and Major Tim Peake were signatories. 

If the highways, transportation and infrastructure industry is going to have a chance of delivering on its ambitious goals, it needs a steady stream of talented new recruits with detailed technical knowledge. To achieve this, the image of the sector needs changing.  

CIHT’s study found that for some, the problem was more fundamental. “The whole industry has an image problem,” one respondent wrote. “Reaching the young people in schools… is wasted effort when the overall public perception of engineering is flawed and biased. We need a radical makeover – continually harking back to the greats of the past (Brunel is so overused) won’t cut it anymore!” 

Earlier this year, a survey was launched by the Highways Sector Council (HSC) Future Leaders Group to help understand how to make highways a career of choice. The survey's aim was to better understand how the sector can continue to attract skilled candidates from all backgrounds, understand future skills required and retain its existing talent. Over two thirds of the respondents would recommend highways as a career of choice listing career opportunity, making a difference, problem solving and satisfaction of seeing your work as the top reasons for working in the sector. 

In addition, the survey highlighted that there is a lack of awareness of careers available across the sector irrespective of which part of the sector people join or work in and there is a need to improve the collective brand image for highways. It emphasised the need to attract and retain diversity in all respects for skills today and for the future. 

Sue Percy, CIHT’s CEO and member of the HSC said: 

“I welcome this survey which highlights keys opportunities, as well as the challenges, for the sector to attract and retain a diverse and skilled workforce now and in the future. The findings build on work CIHT is also doing on skills, EDI and careers and I look forward to collaborating with the HSC and key partners to deliver highways as a career of choice.” 

Here at CIHT we have taken the skills shortage and lack of diversity into account when producing our 2022+ and Shifting the Dial strategies. As a chartered professional body, we work to improve and enhance careers. CIHT provides qualifications, training and CPD to help members develop the skills and knowledge needed to provide leadership in a constantly evolving sector. Our CIHT Learn digital training platform also helps those in the sector further their knowledge and skills during their career.  

Social media could help change the image of engineering, another person suggested, such as highlighting the industry’s key role in ‘net zero’ efforts. A notable example of this is campaigns such as Tomorrow’s Engineering Week. These online campaigns are needed to help encourage the younger generation to consider a career in engineering. With an ageing workforce and an increase in engineering developments policy makers needs to ensure engineering is introduced in schools and is promoted as the overwhelmingly positive and exciting industry it truly is. 

Words by Jessie Dunn- Digital Communications Officer at CIHT

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