The UK is not the only nation suffering engineering skills shortage it seems, it is a problem that is now increasingly impacting aerospace and defence companies in the US. Marion Blakey, the highly respected and long-time CEO of the US Aerospace Industries Association went on the offensive yesterday speaking at the Reuters Aerospace and Defense Summit in Washington, and she laid out what is fast becoming a very serious problem for US aerospace and defence companies.
I know from my own experience of travelling in the US fairly recently that for some companies, particularly those struggling with a workforce that has an average age sometimes well over 50, the warning shots of what Blakey said yesterday will not have come a moment too soon. Those that have met Marian Blakey as I have, will know that she is not only formidable in her role at the trade association but also that she is rarely known for mincing her words. Yesterday she said that science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines are “less than what we need in terms of young people – both in junior high and high school as well as college”. Putting the same issue another she said that “we do not have a robust pipeline of young people with the right skills and training coming into the [aerospace and defence industry] workforce.
The US engineering skills problem is not dissimilar from our own. In the immediate post war years in both nations, engineering had far less competition from the professional and service based careers than those it competes with today. Back then careers in engineering were perceived to be rewarding and specialist industries such aerospace and defence industry growing fast. Graduate engineering courses attracted large numbers of applicants just as did the many apprenticeship schemes on offer particularly from specialist industries like aerospace and defence companies. There was also a ready supply of former service personnel with a strong engineering background looking to further their engineering based careers in private industry. The bottom line back then was that unless you chose to look toward graduating in law, finance, banking or architecture, a career in engineering, science and technology really was to be considered as perfectly equal and a potentially very rewarding option.
Not so today though; engineering on both sides of the ‘pond’ has somehow been allowed to fall down the pile of options. Pay has not kept up with the service based and professional sectors. And the fact now that retirements are out-pacing the number of new people coming into engineering based industries is a serious problem that must be addressed.
Here in the UK the engineering and skills problem is already well recognised by government and industry and the creation of the Aerospace Technology Institute two years ago, an organisation funded by both industry and government and that exists to protect, exploit and position leading advanced UK aerospace capabilities together with preserving design and manufacturing jobs in the UK shows that the fight back has at least begun.
Marian Blakey’s point about science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines needing to be stepped up in schools is one that has also been recognised over here. Perhaps what both countries need to do is to recognise that the process of selling engineering as a concept let alone as a potential career to young people needs to start very much earlier than it currently does. While Blakey suggests that the shortage of young recruits to engineering based industries has resulted from a combination of factors, including the industry doing a poor job of portraying the field in a positive light to young candidates coming out of college, I would say that the issue is selling the concept to them before they go to college.
I note that on the ‘to do’ list of jobs that the Aerospace Technology Institute plans is to develop outreach programmes to raise the profile of UK aerospace to young people both in and entering education. This is of course what the Royal Aeronautical Society and other very worthy professional institutions such as the Royal Academy of Engineering have been doing for a very long time. The need to extend the outreach programme to encourage more young people to consider engineering as a career has never been greater.
Universities, professional institution and employers must in my view approach schools at a very much earlier age than they currently do. There should be nothing wrong in starting process of selling engineering to school children aged nine or ten. Real engineering challenges such as the brilliant ‘Build a Plane’ project that the Royal Aeronautical Society and Boeing launched in 2008 and that has as its aim motivation, inspiration, awareness and encouragement of the young in science, technology and engineering is a superb example of what needs to be done. The Airbus ‘Fly Your Ideas Challenge’ has been another great way to encourage interest by young people in the aerospace and aviation industries.
What the rest of us have got to do is to get out into schools and talk about the virtues, values and importance of engineering as a career. We need to start young and we need to have a bag of ammunition such as the BAE Systems virtual engineering project that has been built around the Royal Navy Type 26 programme that I described in my Type 26 paper last week. If engineering got its act together in terms of careers education now the hope is that we will not be panicking ten years from now about how we are going to retain the number of engineering skills we need. The problem that Marian Blakey highlighted is definitely one that we share with America and it is one that we must address.
CHW (London 12th September 2014)
Howard Wheeldon FRAeS
Tel: 07710 7779785