Article Source: IMechE

The skills shortage is nowhere more prominent than it is in engineering and manufacturing, with employers across the industry facing the problem of attracting enough recruits to supplement and replace an ageing workforce.

A view that has become more popular and prominent in recent years is that boosting the number of apprenticeships is the way to tackle this issue and deliver a much-needed injection of workers to a range of sectors. It is, of course, timely that people have begun to consider how best to provide opportunities for the next generation to start work. We need to create attractive opportunities for young people to gain a foothold in STEM careers, and we need to do so quickly.

But, while it is positive the industry is actively trying to find ways to do this, this growing trend towards apprenticeships can and should be tempered with other options. As a graduate working in engineering I’m experiencing first-hand the value to a company of recruiting at this level, and I strongly believe this method of entry still has a key role to play. Leaning too heavily into a single method of ground-floor recruitment seems counterproductive to me – to plug the skills gap we should be using all options open to us, rather than merely switching our focus from one solution to another.

Looking at the different levels of entry is simply a starting point – to attract the required numbers of young people to the industry will require us to move beyond this. We need to focus on maximising our appeal by increasing the opportunities we can offer to those who choose to join. Whether graduate schemes or apprenticeships, the crucial element to boosting recruitment – and to keeping people once they arrive – is in offering a diversity of opportunity which engages young workers and allows them to pursue a career in which they will thrive.

Graduate schemes are naturally conducive to this as they can be tailored to explore several different areas of a business. After my three-year programme with Air Products I will have worked in three different sectors of my choosing, taking on roles which will give me an understanding of how the wider business operates and helping me decide the right path for the next stage of my career. Offering young people this chance to base their career choices on real experiences is crucial in my opinion and provides a valuable selling point to those who aren’t certain about what they want to do long term. We should be looking to extend this opportunity to all new starters, regardless of entry level.

This approach can also help solve a major problem with retention. Many of those joining the industry are recent school or university leavers who have chosen a STEM job based on the subjects they’ve studied, but without an in-depth understanding of how these translate to the world of work. It’s therefore not uncommon for people to quickly realise that the role they’ve signed up for isn’t exactly what they expected. For those in a rigidly-defined position this inevitably means they resume job-seeking, and many are put off by one bad experience and move to other sectors. Conversely, those in graduate programmes are far less likely to take this step as their experience in a first role doesn’t feel like the ‘be all and end all’.

We know how vital it is to bring the next generation of engineers through, and individual companies and the wider industry are undoubtedly making this a priority. But if we’re serious about solving the problem we need to think carefully about what will appeal to those starting out – and diversity of opportunity has to be at the top of that list. Keeping entry-level options is one way to attract more people, but what happens next is more important.

New starters need an opportunity to get to know the industry, to learn where their skills lie and to choose their own long-term career path. If we provide these simple things it will go a long way to boosting both recruitment and retention.

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