We Are Producing Less Than Half the Engineers Our Economy Needs

04/09/2012 17:28 BST | Updated 04/11/2012 10:12 GMT

Whilst entries for STEM subjects at GCSE and A Level may have risen, it is important that young people continue those subjects into higher education because the UK economy needs more people studying science and engineering at university and taking up jobs in this sector.

There is huge demand for engineers. The Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) Skills and Demand in Industry Survey for 2012 shows that over the next year, 58% of UK companies are planning to recruit compared to just 36% in 2011. Our skills survey also shows that for the first time since the recession, companies have the confidence to expand their engineering workforce. The planned recruitment is clearly good news, suggesting increased confidence in the economic outlook, but if firms are unable to fill their vacancies the economy is more likely to continue to shrink.

As expected in capacity constrained market, as the demand for engineering skills has increased, more companies are experiencing difficulty in finding the suitably qualified engineers they need. It is predicted that an extra 200,000 engineering professionals will be needed by 2020. Currently, the UK is only producing 25 to 50 % of the engineering graduates that the economy needs. We are at risk of stifling economic growth if we do not encourage more students to study STEM subjects which are crucial to increase the output of UK plc.

As well as good grades, it is equally important that young people possess a range of employability skills and have relevant work experience. More than a third of employers have told the IET they believe that new recruits do not meet reasonable expectations for levels of skills. In this regard we stress the importance of training and development as a key way to hone the skills of new recruits. Adequate provision needs to be made by employers. Employers should be encouraged to provide more work experience and sandwich placements which would be much more effective in bridging the skills gap rather than sending employees on external courses.

A report by the Independent Commission on Fees highlighted a fall in university applications, clearly as a result of the rise in tuition fees and the economic downturn.

Students are re-evaluating whether or not to start their university careers.

A university education is not the only route.

Given the tough economic situation, apprenticeships are a viable alternative to a traditional academic pathway. Although most schools are still focused on sending pupils to university rather than onto apprenticeships, it is important to recognise that both routes are equally valuable. Apprenticeships provide an excellent route into a rewarding and enjoyable career in engineering, equipping young people with the key practical and technical skills that are valued by employers. It is therefore clearly important for head teachers, teachers and careers advisors within schools to do more to raise awareness of apprenticeships as a real option for their students' futures.

Part of the problem lies in the UK education system. Supply issues need to be addressed. A mix of both academic and vocational training is required so that technical learning opportunities are provided for everyone.

The IET and many other professional bodies believe that ICT education is in a dire situation, which is already harming the UK and its globally competitive position. One of the side effects of this poor teaching has been to grow generations of students who, though avid users of technology, have absolutely no insight into how modern ICT systems work.

The President of my organisation, the IET, has said that he believes the teaching of ICT in England and Wales is 20 years out of date and as a result a whole generation has been lost who could have designed the systems of the future. He places the blame on the government for failing to set an appropriate curriculum.

He says that whilst the current generation, often referred to as the 'Net Generation', are heavy users of ICT in their social interaction, very few have been taught how to understand, design and build upon the technology that underpins most of our daily lives.

Clearly, there is an urgent need for schools to be teaching the current generation Computer Science as a subject in schools in order that our future workforce is equipped to design, build and maintain the next generation of infrastructure, systems and products, all of which require elements of computer science and engineering.

To help remedy the situation, the IET has joined forces with the Computing at Schools Group to build on the considerable success they have achieved so far in the promotion of teaching Computer Science.

We at the IET believe that by pooling resources and effort, together we can support the already considerable progress made to date. We will further build momentum by utilising our networks of volunteers and schools ambassadors.

Incoming IET President, Professor Andy Hopper has a particular interest in this area so we are confident of further progress.