Should we be worried about the future of the engineering industry?

In Britain, 5.7 million people currently work in engineering companies. This represents nearly one fifth of total people employed! But despite being one of the largest sectors in the UK, its future is uncertain.

By 2020 50% of the engineering workforce in the UK is set to retire

Currently the average engineer in Britain is 54 years old. With the average retiring age nearing 65, 50% of the entire engineering workforce is set to retire by 2020. To make things worse, those retiring will be the employees with 30 years experience and the directors. The big question is how is the industry going to cope? There will certainly be a struggle to find enough qualified engineers and technicians to replace them.

Britain needs an extra 20,000 engineering graduates per year

However, the industry’s reputation for being a mature industry is not the only troubling matter. In parallel, studies have proven that there is a rapidly decreasing proportion of younger workers entering the engineering world. This might be explained by the uncomfortable fact that only 6% of students in the UK are studying engineering and related subjects at university. Women in particular are under-represented with only 1 in 7 engineering students being female.

Engineering UK has recently said the country needs over 1.8 million new engineers and technicians by 2022 to replace the disappearing older workforce, as well as meet engineering companies’ expansion demands. This averages out at about 182,000 people per year.

The reality is that there is a big gap between the amount of engineering demand in the UK, and the existing supply given the disappointing numbers of new entrants. According to Engineering UK’s analysis, the 182,000 engineers needed per annum include 57,000 people at advanced apprentice level, and around 101,000 engineering graduates. If we look at historic figures we can project that there will be just over 41,000 British engineering graduates and an additional 40,000 international engineering graduates from abroad per year. If, as the study shows, there is a need for 101,000 engineering graduates per year, there is currently a shortfall of around 20,000.

Engineering company’s in construction, ICT and manufacturing are the hardest hit

Certain engineering sectors are more affected than others. Engineering companies in construction, ICT and manufacturing are the hardest hit. They have expressed a need for more employees with higher level skills over the next few years but are less and less confident that they can recruit the skills needed in sufficient numbers. This is an issue throughout the UK, but even more predominant in London and the South East of England.

The effects of Brexit

The Brexit result has not helped growing concerns. As we mentioned previously, the engineering industry has relied on around 40,000 international graduates joining the British workforce year-on-year. This is not even counting all the other international workers that help run the sector. Potential changes to the free movement of labour could restrict these numbers, and cause an even bigger unbalance.

So, what is the solution to minimise the damage? There has been a big push to promote STEM subjects at school to make sure pupils can make well-informed decisions on their future careers at an early stage. New entrants into the market will help the long-term problem, but in the next few years, once the older generation retire, the remaining younger engineers and  graduates could struggle to replace those with over 30 years’ experience.

On a positive note, this ongoing problem makes current practising engineers and technicians very employable!

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