Match maker: Interview with Keith Lewis, Matchtech
Recruitment consultants have a very close view of the skills shortage. Paul Fanning talks to one of the UK's leading agencies.
The effects of the skills shortage are increasingly being felt in all sectors of the engineering industry, but perhaps the most immediate shockwaves are inevitably felt in the recruitment sector.
Keith Lewis, managing director of Matchtech, the UK's leading specialist engineering recruitment agency, is therefore better placed than many to assess the damage being done by a lack of skilled engineers and to predict future outcomes.
One of the biggest problems as he perceives it, is the lack of leadership evident on this issue. "No-one has it by the scruff of the neck," he says. "It's a little bit disparate, which also filters down to the engineering institutions. There's a lot of people trying to tackle the same problem, but without any joined up thinking. So you've got bodies like Engineering UK, for instance, which do great initiatives like The Big Bang and Tomorrow's Engineers. You've got STEMNet with 26,000 people out there giving a message, so I wonder why these organisations can't work together rather than separately. Also, there must be 30 different Institutes out there and they're all probably giving out a separate message."
To add its voice to the clamour for action on this matter, Matchtech recently launched its annual Confidence Index. This revealed a strong sense of unease from UK engineers about the government's ability to secure the future of their industry in the UK. The results of the survey show that over three quarters of British engineers lack confidence in the government's action to encourage innovation in the UK, while nearly two thirds of engineers believe the UK would cease to be a world leader in engineering in the future.
While this paints a worrying picture, Lewis points out that the engineering sector itself is in fact thriving. The problem is that the negative or mistaken perceptions of engineering persist regardless of the condition of the industry. "The perception of engineering and manufacturing tends to be more negative than positive," he says. "So you tend to hear a lot about Portsmouth Naval base closing, but hear nothing about JLR expanding or Nissan's new facility."
However, the effects of this shortage are very real and already being felt in a number of quarters, particularly in terms of the passing on of information and knowledge. Says Lewis: "The engineering community is an ageing one. They are having to work longer and it's increasingly falling to the client to have to draw on that knowledge and impart it on to other people coming up through the business. So there's a real challenge there to get the job done, but at the same time to ensure that the people underneath are learning at the same time."
When it comes to the question of how to improve matters, Lewis is keen not simply to point the finger at Government, saying: "When we talk about what can be done by Government, I'm very conscious of saying 'Government' rather than 'the government', because the skills shortage is hardly a new issue. It's been building up over a long period of time and is independent of party politics."
That said, however, Lewis believes that the current government's increased emphasis on manufacturing and engineering is a positive step, the effects of which are only just starting to be visible.
"It's too early at the moment," he says. "It's great, of course, but what I would say is that I think this is reflected in the Confidence Index. That shows an 11% increase in policy confidence to 58%. That's the only tangible thing I've seen so far and that's obviously great. However, I'd like to see that that confidence was reflected across the whole of the engineering community."
Of course, one thing that would greatly improve the situation would be if more women were to join the engineering profession. Says Lewis: "It's a huge issue, which is surprising in some respects as there are more young girls pursuing maths and physics, but they aren't coming out the other side into engineering."
Of course, the perception of engineering as being male-dominated is one problem in this regard, but there are others, as Lewis points out: "Some research recently undertaken by Atkins – a report on women in engineering – gave the result that more than 50% of them felt that it would involve physical labour and that's what put them off...91% of women who had gone into engineering cited the reason as someone who'd inspired them while they were at school. So it's clear to me that you can't rely on someone being inspirational as a teacher, so you need to put systems in place to stop those girls falling away from those subjects."
Of course, pay is another reason often cited as putting people off engineering as a profession, but here, Lewis believes, the laws of supply and demand are starting to take effect. "In the last 12 months, we've noticed engineering salaries going up as much as 5%. So there's definitely movement there and, with the skills gap, that is only likely to accelerate. Rates are bound to track supply and demand," he says.
Ultimately, there will be a lot of work required to address this problem. So what does Lewis believe engineers themselves can do? "I would ask people within the sector to make more noise about it and the opportunities it can create," he says.
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