People and Skills: the second of 6 articles by Mark Harris on how UK engineering can prosper under Brexit.


A key consideration when determining how Brexit will impact the engineering sector has to do with how we handle shared capital and labour as well as research & development. As discussed in my previous article, a looming UK engineering skills crisis means that we must tread wisely and decisively to ensure positive outcomes for the industry in the medium and long term.

Tapping new sources

According to the Institution of Engineering and Technology’s 2016 Skills & Demand in Industry survey, out of the 52% of engineering companies currently recruiting engineers at technician level and above, more than half are having trouble finding engineers with the right amount of experience.

A major recommendation for this report is that employers and educators forge stronger links to create more widespread opportunities for the kind of work experience that will address specific engineering skills gaps.

The report also recommends that businesses help to address the ‘experience shortage’ by taking an ‘agile’ approach to CPD (Continuing Professional Development), with a particular emphasis on the rapid pace of change within the industry.

Along with the necessity for quality work experience and continuing professional development, the report cites the need for a more inclusive engineering workforce which currently has only a “very small” proportion of women in it. It also points to the opportunity that exists in exploiting the untapped potential of recruiting from a range of more diverse backgrounds.

Beacons of excellence

It’s important to remember that the engineering sector generally has already been active in addressing skills shortages. The gradual shift in emphasis from manufacturing to service industries has led many companies to invest in programmes which promote engineering to young people.

The Royal Academy of Engineering’s ‘Engineering Talent Project’ has been set up to specifically challenge policy barriers to engineering education and it is expanding its ‘Tomorrow’s Engineers’ – a project that gives young people a hands-on experience of engineering at school. It is also pleasing to see teams from some leading UK universities among the 50 teams from around the world competing in the 2017 Airbus ‘Fly Your Ideas’ competition.

Programmes such as these are essential in mitigating any future skills crisis but they must begin much earlier. Engineering has to become bedded into the educational mainstream and this will only happen if the skills, processes and ideas are present as curriculum topics in subjects such as Mathematics and Design & Technology. And this means not only in the teaching materials, but also that the key teaching staff have a good appreciation of engineering. Otherwise, it’s just too late for many, who have already begun forming broad ideas for career choices.

Maintaining academic mobility

Up till now, the UK has attracted some of the world’s best researchers. According to 2014/5 figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency, 11% of the UK’s academic staff come from other countries in the EU, but in engineering, that figure is 15%. In terms of academic research, it is vital that UK academic institutions continue to be attractive for researchers, with support for the mobility of research staff, at least in line with academic institutions in EU countries.

UK researchers also need to have the facility to spend time in EU countries. If Brexit brings reduced access, we need other means to give researchers and students the international experience they need. It’s also vital to the future growth and health of our engineering industry that the UK retains access to world-class EU research facilities.

A successful Brexit is about developing a clear understanding of all the ways that the UK is currently dependent on the EU. For the UK engineering industry there’s a lot to get right. Besides exploring and exploiting new sources of talent and creating programmes of excellence to address highly specific skills gaps, we must take account of the benefits of our current access to European funding, labour and shared research – and ensure we have enough measures to replace them in a way that protects the industry and ensures its healthy future.

I hope you found this piece thought-provoking. My next article in this series about UK engineering post-Brexit is the first of two pieces examining the vital role of innovation.