Over the last year I have been working and travelling up and down the UK to promote change within our engineering institutions. I have been talking to Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE) members, young and old, delivering a presentation that centres around the relevance of this very engineering institution. I was not yet seeking to put forward a solution, but instead to gauge people and get them talking so we can work together to build a stronger institution on the basis of a new consensus for change, if we are to ensure that we become more relevant than we are today and more able to address the challenges that society will look to engineers to solve.
Today, engineering accounts for 26% of the UK’s GDP. It supports 14.5 million jobs and employs over 5.5 million people: 3.6 million of which are qualified and practising engineers and technicians. Yet, over 3 million of our qualified engineers have absolutely no affiliation with any professional engineering institutions (PEIs). It’s estimated that only 300,000 engineers have registered with the Engineering Council (EC). That number has been rapidly declining for the last decade.
So why have our engineering institutions seen such a decline?
Although our education system has the capacity to deliver the number of engineers we need, our universities continue to produce a surplus of graduates we don’t need at the expense of more vital STEM graduates.
As a profession we do not seem able to influence this situation. With 35 separate PEIs we are too fragmented – we’re unable to talk with one common voice.
As I see it, Brexit, combined with our institutions’ inability to find cohesion, and the engineering skills, shortage means membership trends will only go one way. Down. The engineering industry might be a key driver in national productivity, but a lack of skilled people puts our collective future at risk.
In a recent report, EngineeringUK analysed the industry’s capacity and capability for growth. It found that for every new job in engineering, two more are created outside of the sector. The report recommended that the numbers of graduates in engineering needs to double, while more grads in technology and other related STEM and non-STEM subjects – other disciplines which feed the engineering industry – are required.
Paul Jackson, Chief Executive of Engineering UK, said: “Engineering is a growth industry that has the potential to continue to drive productivity in the UK. This is a great opportunity, tempered only by concerns about the need to train many more engineers if we are not to be left behind by countries like South Korea and Germany.”
Nick Boles, the Minister of State for Skills, added: “These shortages are compounded by insufficient numbers of young people, especially girls, choosing a career in engineering. I am convinced we will only overcome these challenges if all those with an interest in UK engineering commit to greater collaboration and partnership.”
It is essential that we work together to build a stronger engineering industry, to entice people from an early age to participate in STEM subjects and to excite their interest in engineering. Employers continue to report significant skills shortages in the engineering sectors at both technician and graduate levels: the country needs a predicted 1.1 million graduates and 550,000 technicians before 2022. At present, we’re on course for 664,000 graduates and 270,000 technicians.
PEIs and engineering associations all over the world are, with their falling membership and seeming irrelevance in the modern digital world, in a crisis. At present, younger generations are not interested in committing to professional bodies or “clubs”, and our own institution is no different.
The IMechE relies on membership – and membership fees – for our very existence so it is essential to move forward and ensure that PEIs can be relevant once again, not only to our existing members and stakeholders but for new blood, industry, academia – and society as a whole.
If we can deliver on the number of engineers we need, the UK would generate an estimated £27 billion per year more to the economy: the equivalent of building 1,800 secondary schools or 110 new hospitals.
Through education and employment we need to boost engineering and technology. We need to draw on the talent we already have in our workforce and we need to increase diversity. We need to make our sector more cohesive and appealing so as to increase skills by attracting employees from other sectors. We need to develop an industrial strategy that reinforces and sustains engineering’s contributions to the UK. We need to recognise that there is a skills shortage – and we need to address it.