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23rd March 2022

The Speaker

The subject was due to be introduced by Kirsty Donnelly, Chief Executive Officer and Director General of the City & Guilds, but unfortunately, she had been taken ill with COVID-19.  Sir John Armitt, the President, who has worked with Kirsty for the past 9 years, therefore undertook to present the introduction on her behalf.

Kirstie is a hugely passionate advocate and campaigner for Lifelong Learning and has worked at the forefront of education and skills and the broader sector for thirty-three years, contributing to National and International policy and programmes, as well as publishing a long list of action-oriented research pieces on the need for skills infrastructure.

Introductory Presentation

Kirsty’s introduction included six interlinked themes:

  1. City & Guilds is the global skills organisation which operates across 24 industries, whose purpose is about helping people and economies grow and prosper through skills development.  The City & Guilds and the Smeatonians share very common interests.

  2. The country has never needed a more skilled, and future skilled, workforce than it needs now.

  3. All the big macro challenges we face in the UK, and even on a global stage, rely on skills

  4. There is a shrinking supply on the labour force

  5. Workers are turning their backs on some key jobs / sectors

  6. What does this all mean for the engineering sector, and what does the industry need to do to arrest the skills issues and to take real positive sustained action?

The City & Guilds has been working with industry and government on up-skilling the nation’s workforce since 1878.  The City & Guilds’ first home was on the site of Imperial College and its establishment arose out of a concern about the skills shortage.  It’s purpose today is the same as when it was founded – to help people, organisations and economies develop their skills for growth.  Getting one’s “City & Guilds” is still recognised across industry and around the world as a trusted badge of professional skill and competence.

Both the City & Guilds and the Smeatonians understand the umbilical link between skills and building a successful nation.  As we emerge into a post Covid world, there has never been a time when we have needed a skilled workforce more. 

20 years ago, the world we know now would have been unrecognisable; no smart phones or ubiquitous social media, let alone video conferencing, big data, and cryptocurrencies.  Yet we are now well on the journey into our fourth Industrial Revolution and the next wave of eye watering digital transformation with AI, machine learning, automation, robotics, big data, cyber security and so much more.  Especially after the pandemic, we are now seeing a seismic shift in workforce expectations which are challenging workplace cultures as never before.  People are re-thinking the combination of work, careers, what they do and the lives they might now prefer to lead. We know that we face massive economic and societal challenges, and we know that our ability to turn them into opportunities relies heavily on the skill and ingenuity of all of us.  These challenges include:

  • Possibly the biggest challenge - the existential threat of climate change and the race against time to develop clean energy technology and distribution.  This needs the collective focus of all of us and nowhere more so than across the engineering sector.

  • Levelling up and social justice.  Without a skilled local workforce, towns and villages up and down the UK will be left behind on the fringes of stagnant local economies, defined by their fraying infrastructure.  It is investment in skills that will make infrastructure investment payback, not infrastructure by itself.

  • The long-standing issue of the UK’s productivity gap and the acute need for a highly skilled workforce to drive up economic growth.  A combination of the pandemic, meeting our net zero targets, and now the alarming threat of war in Europe, have seriously upped the ante in terms of inflationary pressures.

  • As the last two years have shown us so graphically, we know the life-and-death need for world-beating STEM skills to produce the vaccines which will protect us and our children from future pandemics. 

This is quite a list of challenges and it is not surprising that skills are now mentioned in pretty much every government policy report, albeit, amongst all the government’s White Papers and Skills Bills, it is difficult to see where the real grit and substance lies behind the rhetoric and exactly what we are going to do to get ahead of the game.  But at least we are clear about some of the big blockers we need to address, and we are already taking steps to tackle some of them.

  • How do we get employers to be more responsive on skills?  If employers recognise that the workforce does not have the skills needed for their industry, then are they willing to face up to the fact that they have to play a bigger role in shaping the skills policy agenda, being invested in it and invest in training?

  • There is still a disconnect between what happens in schools and the need for a highly skilled STEM workforce.  How do we get a shift away from a focus on university degrees to an equal focus on technical and vocational skills?

  • There is a big drop in the number of part-time and mature students wanting to re-skill – this has a negative impact on the nation’s supply of up-to-date technical skills.  It is not yet clear whether the government’s plans for a Lifetime Learning Allowance for everyone will have the desired effect.  There is a long way to go to make up for the drastic reduction in public spending on skills over several decades and especially the lack of investment in adult skills.

  • We also need to address the fundamental role that employers must play.  All too often employers have not invested adequately in training, preferring the quick fix of migrant labour, or poaching ready-made talent from competitors, and putting up the price of hiring talent as a result.  Like it or not, if employers want to stay productive and leading in the industry, they must reward better and invest more in their employees training and development, creating more flexible working practices.  Employers need to end the stand-off that has happened over decades, between successive governments, and the role they play in skills, versus the responsibility of employers, taking ownership of the skills agenda and taking it away from government in many senses.  

To summarise all of this, the truth is that over a long period of time there has been a steady erosion of the nation’s skills capital, and this the moment when chickens are in danger of coming home to roost.

There are also structural issues that we need to acknowledge. Alongside the nation’s complicated skills gaps, the number of people looking for work across the UK has shrunk by nearly one million since just before the pandemic.  This was not what most of us anticipated; all the talk was about high unemployment when furlough ended and yet every sector is now struggling to recruit the talent it needs.  There are three well understood reasons for this:

  • Fewer workers from the European Union. 

  • More young people choosing to stay longer in education.

  • More older people choosing to retire earlier.

The net result is a significant gap between workforce demand and supply.

On top of this there is a further complication.  Workers in essential areas of the economy – health and social care, retail, construction, energy, hospitality and the like – so often on the front line during the pandemic, are the ones that we know are now turning their backs on their jobs in droves.  There are over 16 million of these ‘essential’ jobs across the UK and, over the next 5 years, we can expect to see three million more opening up in critical sectors.  Yet fewer and fewer people are coming forward to do this work.  Why?  Well, simply put, they don’t feel valued, trained, or invested in.

The City & Guilds recently launched a Great Jobs campaign.  Across 10,000 working people, the research highlighted the importance of the ‘essential / everyday jobs’ that keep our country running.  The campaign is to work with anyone and everyone who wants to tackle the conundrum of jobs without people, and a society that values skills in a crisis yet doesn’t inspire on incentivise workers to take up these jobs in normal times.  We must work together to put the pride back into these essential jobs.

Of particular interest to the Smeatonians, at the bottom of the jobs popularity pile is construction – only 17% of the thousands of workers we surveyed had an interest in working in the sector, and the next from bottom was the energy and utilities sector. The reason for the reluctance to take up these jobs is not difficult to fathom – work-life balance is much higher up the agenda for us all after the pandemic.  Access to skills training and career development is also important as is changing expectations about work, value, pride, and fair reward.  At the very least our young people have a requirement for a modern workplace culture, a clear sense of purpose, a commitment to the work they are paid to do and, of course, the now much needed focus on greater inclusion and diversity across all sectors, but especially in the more traditional sectors such as the great industry that the Smeatonians represent.  Perhaps it is time to ask, on behalf of our younger people and of marginalised groups, our women and girls, people of colour and ethnic backgrounds, people with disabilities; people with cognitive and neuro diversity, “Do I see anyone like me” working in this industry, sector or employer?  That is the challenge most industries are facing right now and none more so than engineering.

As we look to stem the productivity bleed that is happening across the UK, employers have to totally rethink how and where they recruit their talent from, and to reconsider what we measure as being important in respect of attainment.  They need to reconsider working practices, re-think work as a thing we do, not the place we do it, and in doing so re-consider what makes work attractive, how can we be more flexible, more open to part-time, job share and flexible working patterns.  And particularly for our young people, what they value – yes they value reward but higher on the list is belonging and feeling valued, being trained, and being invested in.  These are all real human factors that are also impacting the skilling of our nation.  If we act now and start to work to address the challenges I have listed here tonight, and look to what each and everyone of us can do in the domains in which we operate, lead or influence, we may just have a fighting chance to skill ourselves through this rapid paced fourth industrial revolution. 

So, what does all of this mean for the Smeatonians and for engineering?  When workforce supply is scarce, access to the broadest range of talent pools is very important.  For example, as we know women are severely under-represented in engineering.  Just 12% of those working in engineering roles are female and yet women make up 47% of the overall UK workforce. 


On behalf of Kirsty Donnelly, the President then posed three points for debate.  The debating points were discussed by each of the six tables present, before feeding back to the room – some tables taking each point one at a time, others having a more wide-ranging discussion.  The points and the resulting debate are recorded as follows:


Debate point 1:

What can the broader engineering sector do to make itself more attractive to other more diverse talent pools such as women, but also other less represented groups too?

Several tables were concerned that the very term and connotations of “Engineering“ could be a barrier. Research on public perception would be interesting – there is probably a lack of understanding of the broad spread of engineering.  It was suggested that there should be less of a focus on engineering and a greater focus on our creative problem solving and the products we derive. 

We need to be able to give positive responses to the following questions from our children and young people:

  • “Why do I want to be in your industry?” – to make stuff that changes the world!

  • “Do I see anyone like me in your organisation” – Engineers need to be more visible.  We need some role models in the public domain/media - a soap opera or real-life engineering superhero.  An engineering Dick Barton/Marcus Rashford/Steve Backshall.

There is evidence that children form opinions as young as eight years old and make a decision on science at 14. Therefore, the key is educating / exciting teachers. We should campaign for investment in careers advice, focussed on 14-year olds.  There is a belief that the key influencers are inspirational science teachers as well as parents.

The school curriculum has become too narrow, focussing on academic subjects at the expense of a broad curriculum which should include manual dexterity, spatial thinking, and music. 

We need to make engineering more attractive but not by focusing exclusively on STEM which doesn’t seem to have worked very well.  Young people who are into STEM will do engineering anyway!  We need to add some A - Aspiration, Art, Attitude etc.  We need to attract creative people who use both the left and right sides of the brain.  We need STEAM!

It was suggested that the Victorian boundaries of the large institutions are probably a confusing issue to 18-year olds, even though many of us love them.  Much of the exciting engineering is outside their boundaries - British Computer Society, medical and healthcare, big pharma, environmental - but hugely exciting and important for young people.

We have a poor entry of women and minorities, but better in some sectors such as Environmental Engineering or Chemical Engineering.  We need a stronger focus on inclusivity, not macho, aggressive, discriminatory approaches.  We are losing talent – it is immoral not to engage with 50% of the population.

We need to change the perception of the industry making use of modern working practices.  Make it sexy!  Make it exciting!  Engender pride in engineering to be the big influence as in the Victorian age.  And at the same time engender a more family friendly culture, reduced long hours and less time away from home – we need to alter the way we work.

We need a greater recognition of technical excellence as a route to promotion and seniority, with equal importance to management roles.

The question was posed whether there an Engineering Skills shortage or a shortage of using Engineering Skills better, to change the way in which we do things?  In construction we are still "lifting stuff" about.  Should we shift from the Constructionarium to the Robotarium?

Debate point 2:

How can leaders in the engineering sector look to reflect more modern working practices and cultures required to create a sustained skills supply and progression into engineering and even tap into some of the new green engineering areas to attract young people?

We are at 10 minutes to midnight and demonstrating that engineers have the skills to respond to the climate emergency and the energy mix, and have the ability to create the products required, is key to making the industry attractive.

A working knowledge of the carbon economy and our response to the climate emergency should be mandatory ethics issues for companies and the Professional Institutions.  This revolution needs to be led by industry.  Some of the Professional Institutions can be a dead hand that needs to keep up.

“Social Value” and “Social Justice” are becoming much more important across the industry and should be supported.  The Engineering and Design Institute, based in Rotherhithe, is a new approach to teaching through projects using social value. We were privileged to have its Dean, Professor Judy Raper as a guest for the evening.

Fully embracing the digital opportunities open to the industry will widen attraction, particularly to younger people, and enable better working conditions, whilst at the same time improving efficiency.

Engineering is probably too risk adverse and needs to adapt.  It needs to be less sector focused and more skills focused enabling people to see how transferable (technical or managerial) skills are.  We also need to redefine roles based upon skills and not experience.

Margins need to increase to enable investment in people and skills. Clients and procurement methods have a role to play.


Debate point 3:

To what extent do the Smeatonians believe employers should play a more front and centre role – influencing post 19 education, into adult working life, invest in training & skills and not rely as much on Government policy and intervention?

Any change in approach must be led by industry not by the Professional Institutions who should play a supporting role.  There needed to be better interchange between academia and industry, for example academics spending time in industry, companies sponsoring staff to spend time in universities, colleges and schools.

Industry needs to be prepared to take risks and clients have a role to play.  For example, the company Heathrow Airport typically employs 100 engineering apprentices who work alongside their own engineers and their contractors/suppliers supporting both Heathrow’s operation and development.

We need to learn from the old state-owned entities, BR, National Coal, LUL and the like who had fantastic career paths and teaching.  We need to look after our staff, focus on their career development, keep our promises to them and make it fun.

We must remove unconscious bias from hiring and make sure that our offers to new entrants are clear.

We need to acknowledge all learning not just formal training, and to understand reasons for poor retention.

We need skilled workers of all types and hence we need an equal focus on technical and vocational skills routes into engineering as the more traditional route via university, and engineering degrees need to be broad based to prepare for an ever-changing career.

Large corporations have well-honed apprenticeship schemes, but many engineering careers will be based on SMEs which do not have the resource to set up schemes.  The apprenticeship levy was supposed to address this issue, but there are reportedly many problems with this scheme.  We believe an application mechanism is needed for regional groupings of engineering industry including SMEs for local apprenticeship schemes, supported by revitalized and properly funded Further Education colleges and validated in similar ways to the UCAS system for Universities.

Why does the route to a career through a university degree look simpler and more accessible than a route through apprenticeship?  We note that applying for University is straightforward, well understood by schools and parents, and trusted.   The route through apprenticeships is complex and not understood and there is a lack of co-operation among the leaders of the profession and the employers.

Teachers understand the UCAS system and most of them have been to University themselves.  There is a need in schools for locally organized access to specialists in access to apprenticeships provided by the engineering community.   Currently, information, if it is available at all, depends on ad hoc arrangements with well-intentioned volunteers.

We note that when there are problems in understanding access routes such as these identified, it is always the less advantaged and minority groups which suffer most and this may go some way to explaining the problems in attracting females and minority groups into engineering.

However, whilst industry does need to lead, it needs support from the government in doing so.   In particular, the government needs to value engineering and have clearer pipeline to enable investment by employers in their staff and systems.  It needs to set tone for employers, long term and avoid short term political cycles.  Government also needs to think more about delivery not just policy and enable much greater cross departmental working and industry secondees.  It also needs to enable local government. 

Concluding Remarks

In the President’s summary at the end of the evening he reflected the question posed by several tables “Do I see myself in the industry?”.  He proposed a focus on the things we create to solve problems.  He reflected on the popularity of the recent Netflix documentary on Formula 1, where the cameras went behind the scenes engaging in the people issues before then engaging with the engineering issues.

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