Mind the Skills Gap. Engineers – Your Industry Needs You!

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Aerospace Engineers – your industry needs you!

James Charlett, Business Manager for Consilium – Aerospace & Defence division addresses the chronic skills shortage issue in the UK aerospace industry.

The UK aerospace industry is crying out for talent – but haven’t we heard this all before? If so, what is the cause of this problem; how serious is it; and how do we go about solving it once and for all?

Well, let’s start with demand. Growth predictions alone for new aircraft coupled with record order backlogs has seen the essential task of recruiting a skilled workforce shift dramatically from what has always been a challenge into a potential crisis for the industry.

To make matters worse, this issue is further compounded by an increasingly aging workforce, with the average age of an aerospace and defence worker now being 45, and nearly 20% of whom are eligible for retirement (AIA 2013). This trend alone coupled with insufficient levels of STEM level educated candidates to meet current as well as forecasted demand for engineers has been gaining momentum for over a decade, but worryingly, largely ignored until recently.

So where are the main shortages? As well as being a global problem and one that affects all main disciplines, the issue is particularly acute in the fields of composite & stress engineering, damage & fatigue tolerance, systems integration and also manufacturing/production engineering.

An additional concern is that these advanced skills are generally transferable to other advanced industry sectors, particularly automotive with its own insatiable appetite for good engineering stock. The upshot here being an increasingly protracted war for talent and spiralling wage inflation to boot. Only earlier this year, Royal Aeronautical Society president, Jenny Brody summed up the issue: “The new aircraft of tomorrow will be designed by the children who are only five or six today. So not only must we encourage them to become engineers – and aerospace engineers specifically – but they must also be educated in the new technologies. To achieve this, industry, academia, Government and professional institutions must all play their part.” Fortunately, such a collaborative approach is one that already exists within the industry, with visible evidence of partnerships, collaborations and concerted action to deliver the skilled workforce that the UK needs.

Encouragingly, numerous initiatives are already underway but we, along with many industry commentators, fear that these schemes represent too little, too late to have any real impact in the short-medium term. Let alone reverse the obvious and ever widening skills gap. From a recruiter’s point of view, there are two main issues that need to be addressed if the UK aerospace industry is to secure its long-term future and ultimate success in the global market.

Neither are quick fix solutions, but in our view fundamental to raising the status as well as perception of engineering as credible future career option to future generations:

1) Define the term ‘engineer’. In many industrialised countries it is a protected designation that requires formal qualifications. But here in the UK, a ‘heating engineer’ is the person who services your boiler – not someone who understands thermodynamics or the fluid mechanics that are used to design them. This needs to be addressed as well as recognised formally.

2) Address poor reward. Despite all the talk of chronic skills shortages, graduate pay in engineering remains disgracefully low. Long-term prospects for the average engineer remain decidedly average when compared to the finance sector, which actively recruits from the engineering talent pool, given their high mathematical competency. I’m not saying that money is the main driver for all who choose engineering as a career, but if we are going to attract and retain such an important, inspiring and downright intelligent class of professionals, then this is one nettle that has to be grasped sooner rather than later.

To drive these two issues forward requires something of a revolution. It needs the credible and collective backing of corporates, industry bodies, and ultimately government in order to carry any momentum, let alone achieve anything.

So who’s going to take the lead?

(This article was also published by Aerospace Manufacturing Magazine)

James Charlett

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