Skills crisis

Recent reports on skills shortages, particularly for engineering, are using increasingly dramatic language with expressions such as ‘skills crisis’ becoming common currency. We examine recent reports and compare with the Society’s own experience of careers and outreach.

The Royal Academy of Engineering published a 15-year review of its original ‘Universe of Engineering’ study in October 2014. The report highlighted other Academy research which concludes that the UK alone will need ‘another million engineers and technicians by 2020’ which ‘requires a doubling of annual graduates and apprentices.’

The 2015 'The State of Engineering’ annual report by Engineering UK continues these themes and provides an in-depth overview of the whole spectrum of engineering, particularly manufacturing, bringing together primary and secondary research from a wide range of organisations, notably UKCES, CBI and Working Futures.

Both UKCES and CBI employer surveys state that people with STEM skills are becoming harder to recruit, engineering employers have more hard-to-fill vacancies than other sectors and many are concerned about the calibre of STEM graduates. The CBI survey concludes that 39% of employers felt that students ‘did not have enough work experience’ and 30% that their applicants have a ‘weakness in the attitudes and aptitudes for working life’. However, only 36% agreed that more work experience should be provided. This seems paradoxical given that work experience is perhaps best suited to developing workplace skills. Elsewhere the report provides other evidence that work experience can transform a young person’s fortunes: 67% of employers are more likely to recruit a young person with experience over someone with none, and graduates with work experience get better degrees, higher wages and are less likely to be unemployed.

Perceptions and careers guidance

According to EngineeringUK ‘s own Brand monitoring, only 41% of those aged 20+ could name an engineering development that has had an impact on their lives. A separate study by Kings College University, ASPIRES, recommends that interventions should begin at primary school — ‘with secondary school being ‘too little, too late’, affirming the Society’s own actions around primary age groups through the Cool Aeronautics programme and Amy’s Aviation Fun Kids radio series.

The State of Engineering report highlights persisting employer criticism of careers guidance and new concerns following the transfer of careers advice responsibility away from local authorities. During the Society’s own interactions with careers advisors at the National Careers Guidance Shows over a four-year period, we have learnt some important factors:

* Student welfare issues often predominate conversations, especially at school ages.
* Time with pupils can be limited to a one-off, hour-long appointment per person providing little opportunity to influence decisions.
* Careers advisors welcome specialist websites and magazines about particular fields, as they usually act in a generalist rather than specialist capacity. At university level, the careers team can be relatively small compared to the size of the student body and may work across several or all faculties. The Careers in Aerospace website and Career Flightpath magazine are seen as useful tools.
* Many school careers advisors now work as freelancers, sometimes in a small groups.
* Information from professional bodies is seen as relevant and impartial, even if representing a sector, as funded through individual membership fees and usually registered charities guided by a Royal Charter.

While recent reports do not appear to examine the increased role professional bodies could play in careers advice activities these experiences indicate that the Society’s work can have a positive impact, in addition to employer engagement activities to improve engineering perceptions, and particularly to ensure relevant pathway information is available following increased awareness.

Numbers through higher education

According to the Engineering UK report, 1,070 first degrees in aerospace engineering were achieved in 2012/13 (an 8.5% increase from the previous year). A total of130 postgraduate degrees were achieved, a significant decrease of 41.5% from the previous year, and 50 aerospace engineering doctorates. The ethnic origin of 65.3% of UK-domiciled first degree holders in aerospace is white, followed by Asian/Asian British Indian 8.7%, and Black or British African 4.9%. The majority of UK students are therefore white but there is more ethnic diversity than other disciplines, such as production and manufacturing engineering, where the figure is 84.7%. A total of 115 first degrees were achieved by female aerospace students in 2012/13 — a 15.4% increase from the previous year.

Meanwhile, 63.3% of employed, UK-domiciled aerospace engineering graduates went into engineering employment — this is lower than other sub-disciplines, such as mechanical (76.1%) and suggests nearly four in ten are not entering engineering graduate roles. The figures are lower still for minority groups, such as employed female and ethnic minority aerospace graduates at around 58%. Assuming, then, that 1,250 UK-domiciled aerospace graduates were available in 2012/13, it would be useful to see if aerospace graduate vacancies matched this number.

EngineeringUK also warns that employers should not blame the finance sector for the loss of engineering graduates; their research states just 2.1% of engineering graduates do so!

A-Level Physics

The lack of girls taking A-Level Physics continues to be a concern in both Royal Academy of Engineering and EngineeringUK reports. Yet, is it essential preparation for aerospace engineering study? According to the EngineeringUK report, of the 165 students who did not continue their aerospace engineering degree in 2011/2012 (from a total of 1,490 starters), 12.3% had Maths but not Physics A-Level; 4.6% had A-Levels in both Maths and Physics; and 19.7% had Physics but not Maths A-Level — suggesting that a Physics A-Level is not the most important factor in continuing the degree.

None of the recent reports appear to explore other options, such as engineering foundation programmes for young people who wish to study engineering at university without the right A-Levels. Could a bursary programme for girls be effective in opening up the pool? Many people do make choices at 16-18 they later regret. While school intervention is important, this will only have an impact on university entry and/or apprenticeship recruitment in several years time. Female engineering apprentices at Marshall Aerospace and Defence Group and Raytheon UK who spoke at the 2014 Ballantyne event and Education and Skills Conference had coincidentally applied to the schemes at later ages without a Maths and/or Physics background but had all excelled on the programmes.

Future skills needs

Working Futures 2012-2022 research, published in the EngineeringUK review, places ‘Managers and Senior Officials’ roles as number one on a list of key skills needs for engineering employers, ahead of more specific technical roles. EngineeringUK go on to estimate that many of this group — as well as the more technical roles mentioned — will require ‘at least a Level 4 STEM qualification’ leading to the conclusion that at least 1.5m people with Level 4 STEM qualifications are required in the next ten years. However, the question must be addressed: is this the case for ‘manager and senior official’ roles in aerospace? Many larger aerospace and aviation firms have large non-engineering departments from where some of this senior level demand may emanate. Further research is vital to ensure that we properly estimate the STEM requirement against other professional fields.

The Society’s careers advice provision to individuals provides some insight into the experiences of the other end of the spectrum: the jobseeker. There are a number of repeating themes which raise concerns but may offer further opportunities to address skills shortages where they do exist. A list of potential obstacles is listed below.

More research is required to address aircraft operator, airport and services such as air traffic control and regulator needs which includes engineering and sector-specific skills. London Stansted Airport has, for example, reported difficulties in attracting applicants to its airport engineering apprenticeships. In April 2015, a BIS-commissioned UK MRO Survey promises to give some key data on sector size and value to the economy.
Therefore, in the coming months, the Society through the Education and Skills Committee will hold workshops with organisations from across its footprint, working closely with the Aerospace Growth Partnership, Defence Growth Partnership and Aviation Industry Skills Board and Specialist Groups to define employer needs but also ensure that universities, schools, colleges and members are involved to provide a balanced view.

Obstacles to an career in engineering

1. A 2:2 degree — preventing application to graduate recruitment schemes.
2. Lack of direct work experience, often having failed to secure an internship and unsure if other experience such as part-time work is relevant.
3. Unable to complete online application forms in the time available due to other study and part-time job commitments.
4. Disappointing A Level results prevent application to graduate schemes, even for those with a first/upper second degree.
5. International student — contributing high tuition fees but unable to work in the UK after graduation.
6. Technical/vocational qualifications and experience not aligned to academic requirements for certain roles, particularly for military service leavers.
7. Finally, while recent Gatsby research suggests that STEM apprenticeships are among ‘the least popular’, given the huge numbers applying to both aerospace and aviation apprenticeship and graduate schemes, support for greater job creation and SMEs is perhaps more relevant, given that such opportunities can only be created by employers and perhaps could include novel recruitment programmes for 2:2 graduates or special visa programmes for international aerospace graduates.

Upcoming Events


Career FLIGHTPATH LIVE, the Society's NEW Spring recruitment fair, will offer a fantastic opportunity for aerospace and aviation organisations to showcase their employment and training opportunities available at this time of year, such as:  Apprenticeships | Direct entry roles | Experienced roles | Seasonal/Contract opportunities | SME vacancies | Graduate schemes for those recruiting year-round or later in the academic year | Training opportunities and courses. The event includes an exhibition of employers and training providers as well as a programme of talks on career pathways, advice, CV preparation and more.

Human Factors in Engineering – the Next Generation

The RAeS Human Factors Group is holding this one day conference on 12 May at Cranfield University.

The conference aims to bring together industry professionals and a new generation of engineers and maintainers to promote a common understanding of human factors and highlight successful interventions in managing human factors related risks in engineering and maintenance.

It also aims to gain a greater connectivity between the new generation of aerospace professionals and experienced human factors practitioners. A greater shared understanding of the impact of human factors in engineering and maintenance is also desired and will hopefully be achieved through the day's programme.

Register online here. Discounted rates are available for RAeS Student Affiliate Members and can be booked through the Conference and Events Department by emailing or by calling +44 (0)20 7670 4345 and quoting event reference #767.

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