Tackling the skills gap in the UK: how can we sustain the engineering boom?

You don’t have to be a professor of aeronautics or a trainspotter to appreciate the great contribution that the UK has made to engineering down the centuries.

The world’s fastest car was made in Coventry in 1997, the steepest funicular railway is in Hastings, Britain’s deepest and highest canal tunnel is the Standedge Tunnel, built in 1811 by Thomas Telford. The examples go on, and include the likes of the first passenger train (Manchester), largest bell foundry (Loughborough); and one of Europe’s oldest windmills, built in 1627 in Buckinghamshire. Add to these the staggering achievements of Brunel, Stephenson and an army of other British born-and-bred engineers, and you’d assume that our continued success in this field was assured.


The danger of a decline

Britain’s engineering prowess, however, is in danger of becoming a shadow of its former self, unless education and private sector business work more closely together to produce the flow of reliable talent that is necessary for the nation to compete successfully in today’s marketplace. A recent annual report from the Institute of Engineering and Technology revealed that about half of the companies surveyed said that their latest recruits did not possess the right skills or meet a reasonable level of expectation.

The numeracy and literacy levels of school-leavers were repeatedly cited as being woefully inadequate, while graduates had a lack of leadership skills and often poor practical and technical experience.

A return of confidence

This damaging skills shortage in engineering, like that in many other sectors, is seriously hampering the economy and impacting negatively on prospects for future growth. Up-skilling has become vital to plug the gap, and a number of learning and development initiatives that are not graduate-based have been implemented to stop the worsening decline.

There are signs that we have begun to turn the corner. Sir Nigel Rudd – Meggitt Chairman – is just one of an encouraging number of examples of how the right leadership at the helm of UK engineering companies can and do help this country flourish in the demanding technical and engineering sectors.


Visa, British Gas and other companies have announced IT programmes for apprentices and this is certainly an important step in the right direction. Participants get real work experience while at the same time building on their skills.


Although industry organisations such as the IET provide valuable professional registration services, the government needs to ensure that students coming out of school and university have appropriate qualifications too.

Career milestones

A career development programme needs to be in place, with qualifications acting as targets or milestones, adding significant value and purpose to an engineering training structure.


Especially in an uncertain economic climate, job markets remain unstable. Employers will focus increasingly on professional qualifications and what these represent in terms of career development, competitive advantage and flexibility. Coupled with graduate training and apprenticeships, engineering companies can become more productive in an industry that made Britain famous, and which will continue to promote her interests around the world.