The first of a series of 6 articles exploring how the UK engineering sector might benefit from Britain’s exit from the EU
The issue of Brexit has profound implications for just about every aspect of British society. For the UK engineering sector, there are significant issues to be addressed, but huge opportunities too. In this series of articles, I will be exploring these issues and how the industry can take advantage of the appreciable opportunities afforded by Brexit.
The key factor behind the success of any industry sector is its people, and this is certainly true of the UK’s engineering sector, which accounts for 20% of the UK’s total gross value added. In total, engineering-related sectors employ 5.5 million people and produce around half of all the UK’s exports.
In this series of articles I will be exploring the issues and the opportunities facing the UK engineering industry in a post-Brexit world.
Addressing the skills gap
While the UK’s research and innovators continue to lead the world, we can’t escape the fact that we are facing an engineering skills crisis. It’s been estimated that we need 182,000 new technicians and engineers each year. Although some may argue that Brexit will only add fuel to that particular fire, I would argue that the opposite is true. Managed properly, Brexit presents the engineering industry with almost unprecedented opportunities to expand and flourish.
As far as the Brexit negotiations are concerned, the government must work with the sector to address the skills gap and enable the development of practical, collaborative solutions.
Engineering draws from a worldwide skills pool. It is important that companies remain free to transfer personnel between positions in the fulfilment of their contracts. Likewise, young people looking to establish a career in the industry need to be assured of opportunities to gain international experience – in the EU and beyond. And there must still be opportunities for engineers from other countries to study and work in the UK.
Addressing the problem from within
The government’s apprenticeship programme, with its target of three million apprenticeships by 2020, will go a long way to addressing the projected skills gap, but it must still be supplemented by continued recruitment from other countries, including those within the EU – there is no way round this, in the short term. Brexit will, of course, affect the whole issue of free movement of labour, but for the engineering industry, we are still going to need to draw talent from outside the UK for now.
Another key part of solving the problem is about how we are attract young people to the industry. Although our universities are among the very best in the world we’re still not getting enough students into the courses. Why is this?
I think we need to broaden the perception of what engineering actually is. It’s important to understand that a successful engineering solution is as much as about skills in marketing and finance as it is about engineering. And let’s not forget the skills required in manufacturing quality and regulation either.
Engineers are not just geeks with calculators, they need a high level of critical thinking skills. So while Maths is certainly important, we should also concentrate on some of the more creative and problem-solving aspects.
All of this has knock-on implications for the actual university curriculum – we need to look at broadening it out to prepare graduates for the real-world innovation and creative thinking challenges they will face in their careers.
We could also look at incentivising prospective students by cutting university fees and providing a greater level of financial support through bursaries and other grants to help with living costs.
There is much that is currently being done by academics and those working in the industry to mitigate the effect of the projected skills crisis. As we move forward to the triggering of Article 50, effective partnership between government and industry is going to be absolutely crucial.
My next article in this series is going to take a close look at various aspects of innovation and the important part it will play in ensuring the growth and prosperity of the engineering industry in the post-Brexit world.