To be effective, an electrical circuit can’t have any gaps. Here, Jonathan Wilkins, marketing director at industrial automation equipment supplier, EU Automation, uses this analogy to explain why we need to raise the interest in engineering to bridge the skills gap.

A broken circuit is no use to anyone. However, with an exceptional amount of voltage, a spark can jump the gap and carry the current.  Similarly, a skills gap in engineering is breaking the employment circuit — there are not enough skilled young people to fill the industry’s vacancies. But where can we source the determination, the lightning and the exceptional talent to bridge this gap?  

It’s no surprise that successive governments in Europe are charged with ensuring that the flow of graduates with science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) degrees is appropriate and fit for purpose. Especially as the EngineeringUK report 2017 highlights an increasing need for people with higher level skills, and a decreasing confidence in recruiting these in sufficient numbers.

EngineeringUK modelled the supply of entrants into engineering roles, through higher education and higher level apprenticeships, and projected a shortage of at least 20,000 graduates per year.

Too late for great

To nurture and encourage the engineers of tomorrow, we need to harness the energy of the workforce of today. The ASPIRES report by Kings College London points out that the ages of 10-14 is a critical time for the development of young peoples’ attitudes to science. By age 14, most young people’s attitudes to science are fairly fixed.

But how can we really engage a ten year old without bribing them with sweets?

Over 80 per cent of young people surveyed for the ASPIRES report agreed that ‘scientists are brainy’. The problem lies in students who do not consider themselves as being among the ‘brainiest’ in the class and therefore don’t see science careers as achievable. In partnership with local companies, schools need to educate students on the sheer scope of STEM careers and the huge demand for them.

It’s important to remind these ten year olds that they still have a lot learning left. Furthermore, it’s okay not to be top of the class at the age of ten, and it certainly doesn’t rule out a career in engineering.

Different routes for different suits

Ultimately, the more options to progress into an engineering role there are, the bigger the talent pool will be.  There are many different paths into a STEM career — and it doesn’t just include university degrees. Apprenticeships provide on-the-job training and higher apprenticeships can even result in a vocational qualification or a degree.

Employers are backing apprenticeships, appreciating the real work experience they give the learner. Some employers are even tailoring new apprenticeship standards for occupations in their sectors, designing Trailblazer courses. This results in people with the relevant workplace skills for a specific industry, whether this is advanced manufacturing, aerospace or energy generation.

Apprenticeships are also backed by the UK Government, which promised three million new apprentices by 2020. To fund this, the Apprenticeship Levy has been put in place. All businesses with a payroll over £3 million must pay a percentage of this into an online account. This can only be spent on apprenticeship training and assessment and must be spent within 18 months. This encourages more businesses to take on apprentices.

Ultimately, it’s this real world training that provides the most up-to-date and relevant skills. With new roles being created as part of the rapid digitalisation of Industry 4.0, we need qualifications to adapt. We will no doubt need artificial intelligence (AI) experts, big data analysts and augmented reality (AR) developers in the future, but do we have the qualifications in place for these roles now? 

We may be able to meet the future employment demands of the engineering sector, but it will take the right level of engagement, financial support and pathway flexibility to allow the tomorrow’s engineers to bridge the gap and complete the employment circuit.