Report reveals improving perception of engineering

Posted on 3 Jan 2013 by Tim Brown

Skills remain an ongoing challenge for the sector.

Public understanding and perception of engineering and engineers is rising according to the flagship annual report from Engineering UK but a raft of challenges exist, particularly education and resource consumption, which need to be tackled to ensure a prosperous future.

Now in its 15th year, the Engineering UK report looks at the contribution of the engineering to the UK economy and helps to build a picture of the current and future prospects for the sector.

Download the key facts of the report here.

According to the report, turnover of UK engineering enterprises remains substantial, at £1.06 trillion in the year ending March 2011: that’s 23.9% of the turnover of all UK enterprises and over three times the size of the retail sector.

The sector employs 5.4 million people across 542,440 engineering companies. Between 2010 and 2020 these companies are projected to have 2.74 million job openings. UK manufacturing is very much alive and well: ranking ninth in global output, it makes up almost half (46%) of UK exports, employs 2.5 million people, and accounts for 72% of UK business R&D.

Far from a  decline in manufacturing, output has risen by 148% from 1948 to 2011 and is more valuable to the UK than ever.

But the report acknowledges that there is an undisputed need to increase both the absolute numbers and the rate of growth of young people in schools and colleges who are studying and progressing in the relevant academic and vocational science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects.

Entrants to the individual GCSE science subjects, physics, chemistry and biology have more than tripled from 2003 to 2012. This growth is particularly significant for physics which, along with maths, is a key subject for those wishing to study engineering at university. However, whilst physics uptake increased by 5% last year, it only accounted for 3% of all GCSEs taken in 2012.

The positive trends continue at A level for England, Wales and Northern Ireland. The numbers of A level STEM entrants increased in 2012, with 85,714 pupils choosing maths (+3.3%), 34,509 choosing physics (+5.0%) and 49,234 choosing chemistry (+2.4%). According to the report, the increase in physics needs to be sustained at least at this level if we are to increase the numbers of students studying engineering degrees.

In terms of vocational progression routes, there are similar positive trends in growth: the numbers of students taking a BTec First in engineering in 2010/11 rose 30.4% from the previous year to 14,736.

Similarly, the number of people starting Apprenticeship Programmes in England in 2010/11 for engineering and manufacturing technologies rose to 48,970, a 29.3% increase from the previous year, and the number successfully achieving them at 27,040, was up 3.6% from 2009/10.

Between 2010 and 2020, engineering companies are projected to have 2.74 million job openings across a diverse range of disciplines. A considerable contribution to this is the UK’s ageing population. According to the report: ‘We will need to expand our horizons in order to ensure that we have the pool of future engineering talent we need.’

The report recommends a two-fold increase in the number of engineering graduates. This, it says, ‘is vital to meet the demand for future engineering graduates and to meet the shortfall in physics teachers and engineering lecturers needed to inspire future generations of talented engineers.’

One area of focus is the under-representation of women in engineering. Over the last 10 years, accepted applicants from UK engineering and technology students have grown by 21.5%, reaching 21,344 in 2010/11. Only 10.8% of these applicants came from women.

Furthermore, the report argues that more students must be encouraged to study physics as it has been shown that the principal destination of students with A level physics is engineering, and that almost everyone who passes goes onto a STEM-related course at university. Currently, the pool of students taking physics is two and a half times smaller than that taking maths.

Encouragingly the report reveals that those who graduate in engineering have good employment prospects. In 2010/11, 85.0% of engineering graduates went into either paid work or were undertaking further study within six months of graduating, with almost two thirds of those who went into employment going to work for an employer whose primary activity was engineering and technology.

Whilst medicine and dentistry graduates achieved the highest graduate starting salary, they were followed by engineering and technology graduates: at £25,762, their average starting salary is 15.7% more than the mean for all graduates.

Despite this, two in five (42%) of employers who take on staff with STEM skills still have difficulties in finding the STEM talent they need. In manufacturing, nearly a third (30%) of firms are reporting difficulties in recruiting technicians.

The long-term economic outlook is very optimistic according to the report with  annual global output predicted to more than double in two decades, from $78 trillion to $176 trillion. Today, India and China account for a mere 5% of global middle class consumption, while Japan, the United States and the European Union account for 60%. By 2025, those numbers are expected to equalise. By 2050, they will have flipped.

According to the report: “Supporting economic prosperity is not the only crucial role the engineering sector has to play in our future.’ As the report highlights, the global population reached seven billion during 2011 and the United Nations predicts it could be as high as 11 billion by 2050.

It adds: “In the richest parts of the world, per capita material consumption is far above the level sustainable for a population of seven billion or more. Science and technology will play a vital role in seeing us through this critical period in the Earth’s history.”