A Real Skills Shortage (Part 1)

In a two-part article, Dick Evans, Principal of Stockport College, considers the current state of education and training of people wishing to take up careers in engineering and manufacturing based industries.

In spite of the dramatic (and much discussed) decline in this country’s engineering and manufacturing base, it still represents a significant proportion of our exports and gross domestic product.

The UK engineering and manufacturing industry operates in such areas as aerospace, automotive components, general machinery and equipment and process industries. The industries employ approximately 1.7 million people and accounts for 50% of all our fixed investment expenditure of £50billion. Engineering and Manufacturing output is worth around £160 billion, which represents approximately 8% of GDP. Exports represent 60% of this output and are currently worth £72 billion and make up over a third of export income. In order to maintain this important area of employment it is essential that the education and training of potential engineers is of the highest quality and matches the future needs and demands of employers and guarantees the flow of suitably qualified people into these areas. Equally important is the need to raise and enhance the existing workforce’s knowledge, skills and competence levels through continuing programmes of professional development. Future employment trends indicate

a growth and demand in engineering occupations and reinforce the importance of education and training particularly at the further and higher education levels. Table 1 shows these employment trends.

Table 1 indicates that although the number in “engineering craft and skilled trades’ will further decline there will be an increased demand because of natural wastage and there will be a requirement to train new people and the demand will exceed the fall in employment. A similar situation exists for ‘industrial plant and machine operatives’ where a predicted demand of an additional 350,000 new craft and operative entrants will be needed each year at an NVQ level 2 and 3. Employment prospects at the higher levels of NVQ 4 and 5 exist for ‘science and engineering associate, professional and technical occupations’ where training demand is expected to increase annually by approximately 80,000 new entrants.

Employment in (000s):19972007Annual loss/gain (000s)New entrant training inc. annual loss/gain (000s)
Engineering craft and skilled trades935790–14.590
Industrial plant and machine operatives2,0031,861–14.2350
Science and engineering associate,professional and technical occupations6757507.580

Source: Labour Market and Skills Trends 1998/1999, DfEE

Background and context.

The recent survey by the Engineering Employers Federation (EEF) indicated a further loss of up to 100.000    jobs in 1999 in engineering and manufacturing. This latest annual report again highlights the continuing decline witnessed over the past few decades in these strategically important areas of employment. Even though many of the job losses are associated with the need to improve productivity the reality is an erosion of the engineering and manufacturing capability of this country and a continuing failure to realise international productivity levels. The EEF survey also highlights that poor investment in research, development and new equipment reflects a lack of confidence by employers to invest in new plant. Inspite of a modest recovery in engineering and manufacturing the picture of a declining employment base and productivity levels still well below that of our major competitors is all too familiar.

The reasons for this are multifaceted and complex and include such factors as the emergence of the global economies and the impact of the information and communications technologies. The current position reflects the situation in the early ’80 s when the last government seemed to imagine that this country’s economy could be based on the service industries. This political belief, (or was it dogma?) coupled with high interest and exchange rates brought about a massive decline in the engineering and manufacturing capability in this country. Heavily labour intensive employment areas possessing low productivity inevitably declined and still have to compete with cheaper products from overseas. In addition many other companies went to the wall because of greater global competition coupled with high exchange and interest rates and the lack of a long-term strategy from successive governments.

Other longer-term factors were also in play in this complex mix including the historical and cultural perception of engineering and manufacturing. Many commentators have made the point that the country cannot exist on an economy based on services alone and the country needs an efficient, effective, diverse and dynamic wealth creating manufacturing sector. If that base falls below a critical level it becomes increasingly difficult to sustain, let alone, to re-establish it. The disappearance of 1% of the manufacturing base requires a 10% replacement of a service based industry – the figures surely do not balance or make sense. The politicians argue that the future economy can be greatly assisted by inward investment based on the right employment conditions and climate for the investing overseas companies. However this belief is flawed and creates an uncertain and fragile situation as these companies can always retrench back to their own countries or switch production to other cheaper countries. An extended period of high exchange rates is but one factor that could weaken the inward investment programme and the current situation on the Euro and Britain’s entry into the single currency again highlights the dangers of getting the balance of inward and domestic investment wrong. Another possible ‘short term fix’ is the replacement of fulltime jobs particularly in engineering by employment in call centres. Even accepting the employment issues associated with this form of work i.e. low pay, pressurised working conditions, part time and high levels of staff turn over makes this a highly questionable solution to employment security in the future. With the advance of smart technology it will not be too soon before staff are replaced by intelligent machines just as has happened in the financial services e.g. banking. As the potential and capability of computers and the associated technologies are realised and more fully exploited at an ever-accelerated rate then the employment prospects of call centres is shown to be a somewhat transient and ephemeral solution. These and other factors in engineering and manufacturing must certainly impact on the education and training of people wishing to enter employment in these areas. To assist the presentation the article will now focus on some of the issues associated with education and training of students sector by sector.


One of the main indicators in assessing the health of engineering and the related disciplines is the interest and intention of pupils in schools. The Engineering and Marine Training Authority (EMTA) publishes a bi-annual survey on attitudes towards engineering. The latest report found that one in six boys would consider a career in engineering whilst only one in twenty girls wanted to become engineers. Girls perceived engineering to be “boring” and involved “working in a dirty environment”. Even though the majority saw engineering as an important subject in everyday life, the survey highlighted a lack of understanding of the subject. This latter aspect again highlights the urgent need for more effective careers education and a long-term national campaign to raise the profile and importance of engineering and manufacturing. Engineering and manufacturing still has a real image problem particularly with younger people who have witnessed mass redundancies very often in their own families and the perceived damage to the environment by the technologies. Inspite of the worthy and sterling work of such initiatives as WISE the percentage of females studying or working in engineering is still very low. These negative perceptions continue to impact on the Further and Higher Education sectors.

Even though more pupils obtain GCSE passes in the key subjects for further study in engineering this does not translate into more students on engineering and technology subjects in further and higher education and training. Table 2 below shows the GCSE passes in mathematics, physics and combined science between 1996 and 1998.

These figures reflect the continued move from GCSE single science subjects to combined/ balanced science following their introduction in the late 80s e.g. an approximate decline of 20,000 candidates for physics awards between 1993 and 1998. A number of admission tutors have argued that this has contributed to the decline in suitably qualified students entering University to study engineering.

One other worrying feature in the recent reforms of the national curriculum is the decision to make Craft, Design and Technology (CDT) an optional subject just as this was beginning to attract and introduce school pupils to the excitement of engineering and the technologies.

At GCE Advanced level the picture begins to highlight some interesting and worrying trends.

Combined Sciences1,014,2711,015,5731,018,908

Source AEB.

As ‘A’ levels in mathematics and physics still unduly determines the requirements of university admissions for engineering degrees the performance of these subjects represent a powerful indicator for the future health of engineering and the technologies. After a decline of 15% between 1990 and 1995 there has been a modest increase in numbers obtaining ‘A’ level mathematics whilst physics has witnessed a more significant decline being 11% between 1993 and 1998. A more worrying feature is that both subjects have experienced a decline in the proportion of 18 year-olds electing to study these awards – mathematics showing a decrease from 10.1% to 9.1% between 1996 to 1998 and physics from 5.6% to 4.5 % between 1992 to 1998. Industries representing such areas as micro-electronics and electronics have expressed concern about the declines in the proportion of 18 year olds taking ‘A’ levels in mathematics and physics and have indicated the existence of skills shortages.

It is interesting to note that women represent approximately 33% of candidates taking ‘A’ level mathematics and 20% for physics and yet very few progress onto engineering courses at university. This lack of progression is also starkly shown in the transition statistics for GCSE to A levels where the proportions drop from 51% to 33% for mathematics and 38% to 20% for physics.

Part 2 of this article will assess the situation in education and training in engineering in Further, Higher Education and the private sectors. Finally the possible impact of the impending change, following the White Paper ‘Learning to Succeed’ and the creation of the National Learning and Skills Council and the 47 Local Learning and Skills Councils, will be explored.

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