Employer-educator collaboration key to plugging skills shortage

There needs to be "deeper engagement" between employers and the education system in order to produce a "talent pipeline" that can sustain a thriving UK economy, according to the latest report from The IET.

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60% of employers said recruitment of engineering and technical staff with the right skills is the “biggest anticipated barrier to achieving their business objectives over the next three years”

More than half of British firms report that a skills shortage in the labour market and academia presents a genuine threat to their ability to keep up with demand over the next three to five years, with many firms witnessing a widening disparity between internal talent and newcomers entering the workforce – according to industry specialists, the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET).

More than 80% agreed that businesses have a responsibility to support the transition from education and training into the workplace; yet less than one-in-four (23%) admitted they were appearing at schools and jobs fairs to steer new talent towards careers in STEM.

The 2019 Skills and Demand in Industry is the thirteenth such report commissioned by the IET surveyed, and this year drew on the thoughts of more than 700 engineering and technology firms across the UK. The data was backed up by market studies conducted by BMG Research and compared with previous findings from 2017.

What does the data reveal about the UK skills gap?

Around 60% of employers said recruitment of engineering and technical staff with the right skills is the “biggest anticipated barrier to achieving their business objectives over the next three years”, and nearly half of firms said they struggled to soak up new talent from the external labour market.

A quality supply of young people entering the industrial sector from academic backgrounds was also a key concern, with 73% of employers meeting candidates with textbook knowledge, but no required workplace experience.

A similar number discovered a shortage of school and university leavers seeking technical vocations for their future, though many employers confessed to not visiting them to discuss STEM careers as often as they perhaps should be.

Indeed, just 28% of firms said they were aware that the new T Level qualifications require student candidates to undertake work experience and while nearly 60% stated that they have the means to offer an industrial placement to students, only 43% said they intended to.

IET said this figure could be potentially lower if employers were clear about the 45-day placement requirement.

On the positive side…

Nearly one in three firms stated that they had increased their engineering and technology workforce since 2016 and fewer companies have an internal skills gaps when compared with the last survey two years ago.

A majority of UK firms liable to pay the Apprenticeship Levy said they are practicing it and nearly half said the levy scheme was easy to use. More than 30% of those surveyed claimed to have engineering or technical apprentices on their workforce, with an average of between two and three apprentices at each participating firm.

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“Employers, educators, government and professional institutions like the IET need to focus on how best to inspire the next generation of engineers and technicians” – Joanna Cox, IET head of policy

The IET also found that 12% of businesses are actively trying to increase the diversity of their engineering, IT and technical workforces in terms of ethnicity, LGBT+ status and disability – though the proportion of women represented remains at just 11%.

“As the UK continues to go through a period of economic uncertainty, the skills shortage in engineering remains an ongoing concern for companies in the UK,” said Joanna Cox, IET head of policy. “Companies are taking action to reduce the skills shortages and gaps, however, there is a lot more to be done.

“We found that in many key areas the results are worse than they were in our 2017 survey. More companies report difficulties in finding the skills they need in the external labour market; the shortage of engineering or technical skills at a professional level is a mounting problem; and there has also been a significant decrease in companies providing training at a professional level.

“There has also been no progress in diversifying the engineering and technical workforce since 2017 and yet attracting under-represented groups will widen the pool of trained engineers and reduce skills shortages and gaps.”

The IET said it urges UK firms to provide quality work experience opportunities for young people to help with the rollout of T Level qualifications and apprenticeships, enabling people to “earn while they learn and develop their work-readiness”.

By Rory Butler, Staff Journalist