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Roy Bowdler

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Tackling the engineering skills shortage


The engineering and technology industries have the potential to contribute substantially towards sustained economic growth in the UK.

But like a number of other sectors, they are experiencing damaging skills shortages, which are negatively affecting the economy and hampering future growth prospects.
Up-skilling is required to plug the gap, but also to ensure that newand existing employees are in a position to develop their careers in the way that suits them best.
Roy Bowdler, senior registration coordinator at The Institution of Engineering and Technology, discusses the value of non-graduate-based learning and development approaches in helping to solve a skills crisis that is only expected to get worse.
Apprenticeships and beyond
The recent focus on apprenticeships can only be a good thing and schemes like British Gas and Visa’s recently announced IT programmes should be a great help in providing participants with opportunities for real work experience, while developing their technical knowledge at the same time.
Measures like this will likely be crucial to the future development of the UK’s engineering and technology industries, but what about today?
The IET’s 2010 Skills Survey found that two fifths of employers are currently struggling to recruit experienced senior engineers and technologists. Without sufficient numbers of new engineering and technology graduates, the skills shortage from which the sector is already suffering will inevitably get worse.
The survey also found that 41% of respondents planned to recruit new engineering and technology staff over the next 12 months. But a significant number were concerned that, although they would probably be able to find some potential candidates at the moment, the same may not be true in four or five years’ time.
Professional qualifications
One of the main roles of engineering and technology institutions like the IET is to provide professional registration services. But we believe that the government must also play its part in addressing the skills crisis by ensuring that there are enough people coming out of schools, colleges and universities with the expertise to go on to become registered engineers.
Professional qualifications are useful not least because they can help employers recognise which individuals have the necessary skills required for particular roles. But in a number of organisations, the recent focus has been on accepting chartered status to the exclusion of all other forms of qualifications.
My fear would be that some HR professionals have not challenged their thinking on staff development in this area for some time.
For instance, in the engineering industry, CEng (Chartered Engineer) is the most widely held and recognised professional registration category, representing the highest standard of technical knowledge and professional responsibility.
But IEng (Incorporated Engineer) actually represents an ideal benchmark competency standard for professional engineers who ensure that the technical infrastructure on which modern life depends works safely and efficiently.
The majority of experienced Incorporated Engineers train under four-year apprenticeships, before studying part-time at Higher National level. They then need to gain further experience at professional and management level.
This means that these professional engineers are actually trained to bachelor degree level.
Career milestones
Another thing to bear in mind in this context is that there is significant value to be gained in ensuring that professional qualifications act as career milestones or targets as part of a career development programme.
For example, employers can use the IEng training route as part of a development pathway for technical staff. Many already support university graduate trainees in undertaking chartered qualifications such as a CEng so why not broaden such schemes out to IEng workers too?
To do this successfully and ensure that the qualification is valued, however, employers must ensure that they make sufficient places available and that they offer participants, which include graduates, enough opportunities to undertake technical innovation.
The bottom line is that as long as an uncertain economic climate exists in the UK, the job market will continue to be unstable. As a result, employers need to look at professional qualifications and the benefits that they offer in terms of flexibility, competitive advantage and career development opportunities in a wider sense.
This, coupled with initiatives such as apprenticeships and graduate on-the-job training schemes, will not only help employees to become more productive but also help their employers to increase their top line.
It will also help to ensure that more of the UK’s world-leading ideas can come to fruition at home without their inventors having to go abroad to commercialise them, while likewise ensuring that our national infrastructure is able to meet the demands of a 21st century economy.
Roy Bowdler is senior registration coordinator at the Institution of Engineering and Technology.




One Response

  1. Protecting Tacit Knowledge

    It’s certainly important to look at how new talent enters the industry, I think that we also have to look at how knowledge is moving through the industry too, and how a lifetime of tacit knowledge is an investment worth protecting.

    A global engineering company with an outstanding reputation has a highly skilled and experienced workforce with experience going back to the first jet aircraft, the first nuclear power stations and the first large scale materials handling systems in the UK.

    The problem is that 50% of these people will reach retirement age in the next 5 years. This means that 50% of the company’s tacit knowledge will disappear, and the older installations that the company still supports will be left with no instruction manual.

    Historically, the company has had no formal knowledge management structure, and knowledge was passed across generations using the time honoured methods of apprenticeship and team work.

    The company has a generation of talented engineers in junior grades, a generation of experienced engineers in senior grades, and very little in between.

    We worked with a group of nominated ‘high potential’ staff in a variety of roles and achieved a 83% success rate in significant promotions during two years.

    While the company can’t stop experienced people from getting older and retiring, it can protect their years of experience and learning by investing in the development of tomorrow’s business leaders.

    Therefore, don’t just think about replacing people, think about how you conserve that precious knowledge that you have worked so hard to acquire.


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