Employers test new approach to plug skills gap in engineering

The search and rescue helicopter banks steeply over Dorset’s Jurassic coastline, its downward-facing radar capable of finding a single person that might be lost, floating in the English Channel.

For this demonstration flight, the weather is perfect, but as Mark Burnand, chief test pilot at Leonardo Helicopters explains, the AW101 is equally capable in zero visibility, tracking casualties in heavy seas long after the human eye has lost them.

The AW101, or Merlin, is “a serious piece of kit”, said Burnand, and one that is entirely designed, built and certified in Leonardo’s factory in Yeovil, Somerset.

But back on the ground, Leonardo’s managing director Adam Clarke admits that as aerospace evolves into a new world of composite materials and pilotless passenger craft, the big challenge will be to keep it that way.

“We can’t get enough people,” he said, despite having over 130 apprentices. “We are recruiting people but they are retiring at the same rate. So we need to change how we do the recruiting.” 

Leonardo, which sits in the west of England’s aerospace cluster that directly employs some 37,000 people and generates an estimated £7bn a year for the economy, is far from alone.

An Institution of Engineering and Technology survey published last year, found around half of engineering companies said they had experienced difficulties with a lack of skills, both within their existing workforce and in the wider labour market.

In 2019, even before the ‘great retirement’ triggered by Covid-19 saw a record number of technically skilled over-50s leaving the workplace, the trade body EngineeringUK forecast an annual shortfall of between 37,000 and 59,000 engineers graduating.

To help narrow that gap the government has ordered colleges to take into account the findings of its local skills improvement plans, drawn up by regional trade groups, so that courses better match the needs of local industry.

This is a welcome move according to Matt Tudge, who as head of skills planning at Business West, which published its LSIP last month, found that while larger companies were able to invest in skills, cash-strapped small and medium-sized businesses were finding it harder.

With less than 10 per cent of UK graduates being engineers, compared to nearly 25 per cent in Germany, according to the OECD, British companies are fighting over a smaller talent pool.

If the UK is to tackle its dearth of engineering skills, Tudge added, it will need to shift cultural attitudes towards technical skills, which are more respected in European countries like Germany and the Netherlands.

“People still think of engineering as dirt, spanners and grazing your knuckles under a car, but that is just no longer the case. We have to change perceptions,” added Tudge.

A recent survey by EngineeringUK found there is plenty of work still to be done, with less than a quarter of 11-19 year-olds saying they had heard about engineering careers from a careers adviser.

“A lot of young people aren’t being given the exposure to those opportunities in science and technology — they find out when it’s almost too late, when they’re at university,” said Nicholas Davis, skills manager at the Royal Aeronautical Society. “That’s where the problem starts and where it could be solved.”

Making engineering more attractive to young women — little over 12 per cent of engineering employees are women, according to EngineeringUK — will also be part of the solution.

Across the town at Yeovil College where Leonardo trains many of its trainees, 18-year-old Cerys Flagg, a mechanical engineering apprentice, was one of only four women in her intake of 34. 

Cerys Flagg, a mechanical engineering apprentice, at Yeovil College
At Yeovil College where Leonardo trains many of its trainees, 18-year-old Cerys Flagg, a mechanical engineering apprentice, is one of only four women in her intake of 34 © Jim Wileman/FT

“When you’re at school you can do woodwork, but they have very limited resources, they don’t really promote engineering very much and say it’s a good job,” she said. “And for girls it’s intimidating because it’s a male-dominated environment.”

Mark Bolton, principal of the college, said that technical colleges were working to rebrand the engineering sector, deepening engagement with children and liaising with industry to identify the skills of the future, where “hybrid engineers” will work not with hammers and wrenches but ‘cobots and robots’.

But after two decades of real-terms cuts, he adds, investment in providing training remains key. “We are also facing a skills crunch,” he noted. “Our highest paid lecturer last March was earning £34,500 — that’s only £2,000 more than these kids will earn when they finish their four-year apprenticeships.”

Another piece of the puzzle, according to Graham Herries, at the Institution of Engineering and Technology, is a disproportionate focus on traditional degrees over other kinds of training.

“We’ve encouraged the university route but we don’t need everybody to have an engineering degree,” he said. “We’re still woefully short across the board.”

The government has said it is investing an additional £3.8bn in skills over the life of this parliament, launching skills boot camps, the multiply adult numeracy scheme and a new T-level qualification to run alongside A-levels and generate “parity of esteem” for technical education.

But UK business also needs to invest more, according to the chancellor Rishi Sunak who said in his annual CBI dinner speech in May that employers “spend just half the European average” training their employees.

Among Leonardo’s current crop of trainees there is an acceptance that different routes can ultimately lead to the same place.

Anthony Chiu, 20, attained 10 As and A*s at GCSE but did not apply to university, choosing instead to start immediately as a Leonardo apprentice.

Anthony Chiu
Despite attaining a string of As and A*s at GCSE, Anthony Chiu chose an apprenticeship at Leonardo rather than go to university © Jim Wileman/FT

After seven years, Chiu will have an engineering degree and end up in much the same place as a graduate entrant, just without the university debts. “I always wanted a degree,” he says, “but I was attracted to the apprenticeships even though all my friends went off to uni.” 

For Clarke, who has worked his way up the company, there is no magic bullet to address the UK’s skills deficit.

He advocates a three-legged approach that combines attracting science-qualified people back into engineering, getting into schools early and broadening the approach to include women and those with wider aptitudes. “It’s not just about maths,” he said.

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