Inclusion and challenging misconceptions are the key to narrowing the UK skills gap

A new event to highlight the skills and attributes of the industry’s engineers and technicians has been launched by the Association for Consultancy and Engineering (ACE). The inaugural ACE Skills Summit: Future-proofing consultancy and engineering, takes place on Wednesday 6 June 2018 at the Marriott Grosvenor Square, London and will focus on the key skills issues facing the industry. 

Issues including how to attract and retain the next generation, the challenge of filling the skills gap and how best to deal with the loss of knowledge as more experienced generations retire will all be given an airing at the event. 

Ahead of the event, Infrastructure Intelligence spoke to Dr Hayaatun Sillem, chief executive of the Royal Academy of Engineering. Sillem is responsible for bringing together the UK’s leading engineers and technologists for a shared purpose: to promote engineering excellence for the benefit of society. 

Sillem spoke about the importance of the upcoming event, whether she felt enough was being to create a diverse workforce and if the industry has a problem with recruiting new talent.

Q: Are you looking forward to ACE’s Skills Summit and how important are events like this to ensure the industry focuses on recruitment?

A: This is an exciting new event designed to look at future-proofing consultancy and engineering. I hope we get the opportunity to discuss how the nature of work and the role of engineers will change in the future. The profession faces a really significant skills shortage, so the more we can bring industry together to align and increase efforts to address this, the more impact we will have.

Q: Does construction and engineering have a problem with recruiting new talent and how worried should we be with the skills shortage that many point to?

A: According to EngineeringUK’s latest analysis,  the construction sector is expected to see a demand of over 750,000 workers between 2014 and 2024. That’s 75,000 people a year assuming a level annual distribution over the ten-year period. 70% of that demand is replacement demand – either people retiring or leaving the sector for other reasons. For many ACE members, who represent some of the world’s leading engineering companies, this data might not tally with their experiences. Many top companies will have hundreds, if not thousands of applicants for positions advertised. But in smaller companies, finding good, skilled engineers is a challenge. 

Q: Does the industry have more of an issue recruiting and encouraging women? And how can firms go about ensuring women climb the ladder and fill more senior roles?

A: At less than 10%, the UK has the lowest proportion of female professional engineers of any other European country, well behind countries such as Italy at 19.5% and Sweden at 25.9%. Encouragingly, our analysis of women who graduate from engineering degrees shows that around the same proportion go into engineering jobs as men. So, it suggests that once, we get young women into higher education and doing interesting engineering degrees, they are keen to take jobs in the profession.  
But diversity is not just about gender and women are not the only group underrepresented in engineering. 14% of the UK population are from Black, Asian and ethnic minority backgrounds, but only 6% of professional engineers come from black and ethnic minority backgrounds.

Q: Do you think more can be done to improve the image that people have when it comes to the industry? 

A: Yes. For the vast majority of the public, engineering is still synonymous low value, manual work.  The Royal Academy of Engineering, working with EngineeringUK and industry partners across the UK, has just launched This is Engineering, a major new perception change campaign designed for 13-18-year-olds. Taking a marketing-led approach, the campaign makes engineering relevant to young people, communicating with them through the social media channels that they use every day. 
There are no shortage of organisations promoting engineering. A study by the academy in 2016 highlighted over 600 bodies providing STEM engagement programmes in schools. While many of them are doing excellent work, it is clear from skills data that collectively they are not having the impact required. So, it is critical that we find ways to work together as a profession to increase the relevance and visibility of engineering to young people and capture the attention of policy makers and influencers to support this effort.  
2018 is a pivotal year for UK engineering with several major milestone projects completing, such as Crossrail, and it sees the centenary of the RAF. It is also a time of rapid change in engineering, with exciting new capabilities in robotics, artificial intelligence and medical technology. What better year to mark the vital importance of engineering to the nation’s economic future?

Q: Do you believe the feeling of inclusivity within a workplace improves productivity and do you believe better awareness is needed so different groups can understand how another may be feeling? 

A: We must prioritise action on inclusion, so that all engineers can see that it is something they should care about – not just women and minority groups. Companies with more diverse workforces are more profitable and more innovative. Engineering has the potential to solve some of the world’s great challenges, but it will not do so unless its workforce is properly representative of those whose lives are affected by the challenges it seeks to address. The academy has worked for some time to improve diversity and inclusion in the profession. Last year we gathered the views of 7,000 engineers on their experience of engineering workplace culture. 
Our research showed that while there are many positive things employees cite about the workplace culture in engineering, and a widespread acceptance that improving inclusion is a good thing, there some discrepancies we can’t ignore: being in a minority in engineering gives women and BAME engineers a different perspective on its culture.

Q: What role does the Royal Academy of Engineering attempt to play in promoting engineering?

A: One reason for the UK’s shortage of technical talent is that many people hold outdated views of what engineering is, and what engineers do. Our new, multiyear digital campaign This is Engineering challenges those misconceptions, by presenting a positive image of modern engineering. Developed with EngineeringUK and industry partners, it uses digital advertising to reach teenagers and those who influence their decisions about their futures – parents and teachers. 
Through real young engineers from a range of backgrounds the campaign illustrates how engineering is behind many of the things teenagers are already interested in – sport, fashion and tech for example – and that they can follow what they love into engineering, and in doing so help shape the future. Since the campaign launched in January across social media, the videos have been viewed over 11 million times.

For more information on ACE's Skills Summit, click here.

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