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22nd May 2024

Photo credit "This is Engineering", Royal Academy of Engineering

“Notwithstanding the immense efforts of multiple organizations for the past decade or so, there remains an engineering skill gap in the UK and our profession is still not diverse enough. Technology is changing fast, and our profession must identify the new skills required for the future and yet needs to retain its deep technical roots. Against this backdrop, only we engineers can solve these problems.”

The Speakers

The discussion was introduced by First-Class Member, Sir Julian Young, Past President of the IET and Dr Hayaatun Sillem, Chief Executive Officer of the Royal Academy of Engineering

Introductory Presentation

History and context – engineering skills and diversity gaps

Do you remember the start of the London Olympics back in 2012? There was a wonderful opening event celebrating the story of the UK. The ceremony was framed around our culture, our history and our successes. What are your memories of the event?


The engineering element of this national celebration was broadly covered by the Industrial Revolution with images of spinning machines, tall chimneys and Brunel’s Rotherhithe tunnel. There was also mention of the invention of the internet, an aerial view of the Thames Barrier and the Red Arrows above. The subliminal message of the event was that the new engineering stadium infrastructure worked well, as evidenced by tens of thousands of people in the sitting in the stands and the hundreds of millions of people watching on their Screens around the world.


Moreover, when The Times leader wrote this May about the 40th anniversary of the Thames Barrier, the Barrier was heralded as a “sleeping giant”. It noted that “it functions so well that nobody much notices”. It is “a silent hero, quietly protecting the capital from danger”. In fact almost 1.5 million people live in the flood zone and the Barrier protects this population along with over £300 billion in assets! However, The Times article highlights the fact that in the UK, so much of our infrastructure is taken for granted and the media spotlight usually only falls on the things don’t work! It was ever thus!

The Engineer’s role is more often than not that of the “silent hero”. Of course, many Engineers are of a disposition that would shun the bright lights and, in any case, we were trained by older Engineers, the majority of whom could be placed in the mould of “silent hero” or just “silent”. The traditional Engineer was a white man. Over the last decade or more, the glass ceilings have gradually been broken within the Professional Institutions and within Engineering Businesses. The rate of change in heavy manufacturing and construction appears slower than in consultancy and academia. So, diversity is improving (women are now around 1 in 6 of the engineering workforce) but there is justification that the rate of change is too slow. Moreover, when construction of the Thames Barrier commenced in the 1970’s there was a policy of the Contractor not to recruit women engineers. However, a handwritten application from a person whose name was read as “Carl” but was in fact “Carol” meant that, after a very successful interview, policy was changed overnight!

Clearly, there is need of an ethical debate as to whether there should be a diversity target, and if so, then what that may look like.  Should engineering aim to mirror the population at large where the workforce split is 47% female and 53% male?

Current deficit in UK engineering resources

As to the skills gap, we know that in the UK we have shortages of multiple trades people and professionals alike.  The public debate often centres around the medical profession because it affects us all and is often of immediate concern when waiting times are excessive at Accident and Emergency units around the country. This is common knowledge through lived experience of self or a family member. However, the shortages go way beyond medicine and engineering is a key case in point. The fact is we do not have skilled tradesmen in metal and carpentry to build another Thames Barrier at this juncture in our history, although we will need to supplement or replace the existing Barrier over the next 40 years!


In his presentation, Sir Julian Young noted that “the UK deficit in the resource of engineers and engineering trades people is estimated at 173,000. This shortage costs UK plc £1.5 billion per annum. Recently, the Public Accounts Committee reported that “Skills shortages in technical and engineering disciplines are set to worsen as gaps in the UK’s workforce are compounded by competition from major global development projects.  It added that the failure to build market capacity could result in higher prices for scarce skills.” It is a story that is of national significance but of little interest to the mainstream media.


In her presentation Dr Hayaatun Sillem CBE mentioned the excellent work of the Academy-led “This is Engineering Campaign (TiE)” which has been running since 2018. “An independent study, albeit modest in scale, found that of the engineering students surveyed who recalled seeing the TiE campaign, 24% stated the campaign had an impact on their decision to study engineering – a figure which exceeded the  expectations”. The evidence to date is that “This is Engineering”, a social media campaign, has achieved better awareness amongst school children than many other such initiatives.


So communication, to encourage study of engineering, needs to be focussed on the media that the target audience (including family and friends) will be using. A number of the young engineers at the event mentioned that the methods of communication used by the older generation were becoming increasingly out-of-date to those either studying or at the start of their careers. E-mail and other media such as we have adapted to are less likely to be used by young people who use media such as ‘Tik Tok’ for communication, and that anything that takes longer than 30 seconds to go through is lost.


Thus, the subject of improving communication was central to discussion of the first question which follows below.


The questions were addressed by discussion groups who through rapporteurs’ summary presentations made the following points:


Discussion point 1:


What new engineering and technology skills - hard and soft – will be needed in 2030 and beyond?


This question provoked a wide bandwidth of answers from negotiation, advocacy and story telling, to digital skills, system skills and climate change skills. The skills of “learning to learn” in later life and of managing uncertainty were also seen as important for the future. The social skills and the technical skills were given broadly equal weight. Improving our communication skills was a constant theme. The notions of “problem identification”, “critical thinking” and “creative problem solving” are seen as key. Likewise, expecting the unexpected, expecting complexity and expecting change follow naturally.

Interestingly, ethics and understanding of moral dilemmas was mentioned on some tables. It fits with wider societal questions around the physical effect of climate change and the consequent question of climate justice. In legal circles, it is recognised that an ethical dilemma may present itself a decade or a generation ahead of a change in the law. This thesis is supported by concerns over climate change that emerged 3 decades ago now being followed by a raft of climate related environmental legislation being introduced in the western world over the last decade or so.

Several role models were mentioned as Leaders and Heroes. They included John Armitt, Brunel, Stephenson, Telford and Smeaton himself. Other names included Brian Cox, Hannah Fry, James Dyson, Alan Sugar, Greta Thunberg, David Attenborough and JK Rowling.

Throughout the ages the story tellers have been central to our society and there is a gap as regards the Engineers’ Story being told and heard, especially to the young when they are deciding what training and what studies to pursue. On different tables there were suggestions about story telling ranging from the equivalent of “Horrible History books” to commissioning JK Rowling to write about Harry Potter’s emergence as “a student engineer”.

Discussion point 2:


How can deep technical roots be injected and retained in the development of future engineers and technicians?


Many were concerned that there could be too much focus just on technical skills and not enough on broader requirements. Technical roots are a start point only, the ability to do ‘hard sums’ does teach resilience and a focus on persistence to reach an answer. Good technical education helps with “critical thinking” or “gives a nose for a bad answer”, which is essential where public safety is concerned. The ability to explain the consequence of a decision to a lay person fed into our need for better communications skills. This also led to skills in decision making, and in turn, communicating both popular and unpopular recommendations or decisions.

There was recognition that Artificial Intelligence skills and Engineering skills should be seen as complementary rather than competitive. A good model may be to see AI as a “co-pilot”.


If we consider the phrases “heart and mind” or “head and heart” then by and large the traditional training of engineers is focussed on the “head” or the “mind”. However, it is communication with the heart that is needed when speaking to the public at large. We concluded that if we cannot convince these stakeholders of our craft, then we are lost.


Discussion point 3:


How can we - the engineering community - collaborate in a meaningful way to make a step-change difference in encouraging young people into engineering?


The final question brought some testing discussion including challenge from several quarters that the existence of multiple Engineering Institutions creates a lack of coherence when communicating with the public.  It was felt, that as a generality, those under 40 are far more aware of the challenge presented by the climate emergency. Therefore, climate change and its solutions should be an obvious focus to pull talented minds into the engineering community.  This is where we need good advocates and good story tellers using the media that will reach school children as young as 9 or 10.


Dr Sillem reminded us that engineering is about the heart, or human instinct as she put it: “engineering is a fundamentally human-centric endeavour, which resonates with one of the most powerful levers we have to attract a new generation into engineering – the fact that this is a profession which can empower people to follow that most human instinct, to make a positive difference”.


In conclusion, logical arguments for encouraging young people into engineering seem to meet with limited success.  Against a backdrop where political direction frequently trumps logic, there was a wish for our Politicians to have more scientific skills and for the media to present our concerns more widely. Perhaps a Minister for Engineering might enable strategic success.  The challenge for us collectively is to build these relationships at both individual and corporate level.


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