Is there an engineering skills gap or has Britain got talent after all?

Did you know there’s a skills gap in engineering?

If you’ve read the business pages of newspapers over the last few years you probably associate “skills gap” with “engineering” like you associate “Maidstone” with “Kent”. You can’t say one without following up with the other.

Yet the Internet is also full of comments like the following one. This appeared under an article about the skills gap on The Engineer magazine’s website.

“Struggling to find a job when the press are swearing about a lack of engineers does make you feel like there is something glaringly wrong/unsuitable about yourself”

Some companies do not seem to be experiencing a gap. Last year Unilever had 130 applicants per STEM post and BP had 48. The 129 or 47 that are rejected for each post might easily end up as despondent as the person quoted above. Perhaps talk of a skills gap is exaggerated after all. It might explain why engineering salaries haven’t been escalating as they might if skills were scarce.

Undoubtedly there are engineering firms finding it difficult to recruit people. Whilst some companies have an oversupply of engineering graduates to choose from, some are undersupplied.

I got an insight into why that might be when I spoke to a lady who works for a university, helping engineering students find sandwich year work placements. She has to tell some of the biggest engineering companies not to talk to the students until the well-known, big brand companies had been in to take their pick. The students have no eyes for lesser known companies.

It seems it isn’t enough to be an engineer; you need to be an engineer for [insert big name here] to have really made it.

Also adding to this perception of a skills gap is the rhetoric of politicians. Governments like to have a policy to invest in engineering. This quote from The Atlantic is revealing (albeit about the USA):

“Claims of workforce shortages in science and engineering are hardly new. Indeed there have been no fewer than five “rounds” of “alarm/boom/bust” cycles since World War II. Each lasted about 10 to 15 years, and was initiated by alarms of “shortages,” followed by policies to increase the supply of scientists and engineers. Unfortunately most were followed by painful busts—mass layoffs, hiring freezes, and funding cuts that inflicted severe damage to careers of both mature professionals and the booming numbers of emerging graduates, while also discouraging new entrants to these fields”.

They add this comment: “Ironically the vigorous claims of shortages concern occupations in science and engineering, yet manage to ignore or reject most of the science-based evidence on the subject”.

It is equally ironic that claims of an engineering skills gap might have been manufactured.

Yet if these jobs weren’t scientific, or did not sound as practical as engineering, a policy to recruit more would not impress the voters.

It seems there are a couple of popularity contests going on. The government is seeking a mission and voters with it. Big brands are using their bigger marketing budgets and fame to attract interviewees in droves.

Somewhere in the middle engineering companies and engineers are failing to find each other.  Somewhere in there is a role for the media.

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