• Engineering needs apprentices – and that’s HR’s job

  • 12 Mar 2015
  • Comments 4 comments

Robert Jeffery hears an industry pleading for young talent, and an early warning for HR professionals in every sector

We hear so much about youth unemployment – and will hear so much more in the run-up to the general election – that it is easy to imagine there are packs of young people roaming the streets in a fruitless search for jobs that simply don’t exist. But that isn’t quite true. In one major sector at least, there is such a desperate shortage of entry level talent that employers may soon have to resort to begging and pleading. And the skills mismatches involved could eventually afflict many more industries.

This week, dozens of employers packed into a suitably stately room at the House of Commons to bemoan the lack of talent afflicting engineering. More than 400,000 new engineers will be required by 2020; at present, there is an industry-wide annual shortfall of around 25,000 graduates and 30,000 apprentices.

The assembled crowd was supporting EngTechNow, a campaign to build a register of engineers and begin valuing their skills more fully. Its new white paper, The Experience Gap, lays bare the parlous lack of young people in the industry, and suggests this is being exacerbated by the absence of senior engineers who left the profession during recession and may never return.

Such broad labour market issues can seem intangible among the day-to-day dramas of working life. But for speakers at the event, they were mission critical. “We need skilled technicians just to fill contractual obligations – not the quality and pride everyone wants in their work, just the basics,” bemoaned Chris Sexton, technical director of Crossrail. “People are worried, both in tier one contractors and in SMEs, about whether they have the skills base they need for the future.”

Plenty of engineering employers are sufficiently concerned about these issues to begin taking action now. In April’s People Management, we hear how Transport for London (TfL) has begun mentoring in schools to build a pipeline of future engineering talent, and is now requiring its suppliers to offer apprenticeships as a contractual obligation.

Yet such HR-led interventions are rare. There were just a handful of HR professionals at the EngTechNow event, and many of the operational and technical directors present complained of HR’s lack of engagement with the issue. More than one suggested HR professionals didn’t understand what engineers did, or how crucial they were to the business. There was also scorn for the powers that be. “We aren’t able to attract the talent we want, and yet we hear that youth unemployment in the UK is a huge social issue,” said Ian Beresford, QinetiQ’s direct of capability. “Government and academia can talk about the problem, and do things about it from the ‘push’ side, but it’s only industry that provides the pull side, the opportunities.”

And meanwhile, all agreed, young people were being turned off science subjects at school and driven into degrees they would never use. As Sexton said: “How we got ourselves into a state where we thought graduates could do everything and we didn’t need apprentices and technicians, I will never know.”

It was an impassioned plea from a critical sector, but engineering may be the canary in the mine for the rest of us. If we keep on churning out the wrong type of qualifications, and so desperately misaligning supply and demand among our young people, plenty of other sectors will face similar crises in future. And then businesses, including HR professionals, may find talking about skills gaps isn’t quite so unexciting after all.

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Comments (4)
  • Australia is filling full of unemployed engineers and scientists and some of them may be happy to move to the UK or the USA rather than spend the rest of their lives on the dole or becoming baristas.

    On that topic - will we one day see missions to Mars staffed entirely by baristas? Even if all the spacecraft systems fail one by one, it will be reassuring to know that one can get a good-looking cup of coffee.

    Good luck,

    P Buddery

  • The problem is that a lot of engineering managers lack people management skills - they are promoted based technical skill and ability rather than management skills. HR has a difficult time emphasising that their management responsibilities should take priority , this topped with the fact that engineers work to very tight deadlines and end up working very long hours, they would find it difficult to be able to cope with , coach and train younge people with little or no experience.

  • Kim, you are not wrong that it can be complicated to set up an apprenticeship.

    The report itself notes the difficulties faced by a number of large companies who eventually went on to form the Technician Apprenticeship Consortium - which now works with about 60 companies and a dozen colleges.

    EngTechNow is also working to help companies professionalise the role of engineering technicians so that it gains a higher status among young people joining the industry (and those already in the industry who need to be valued if they are to stay).

    And in the end, collaboration across the whole engineering community - chief executives, HR staff, line managers, colleges, and plenty more besides - is what is needed to raise engineering and technician status and attract more people in.

  • To be fair, Robert, implementing an apprentice scheme is not easy, no matter what size business or industry you work in. It takes an enormous amount of planning and due diligence to launch one and keep it going, and not all businesses or industries are viable for apprentice schemes. There are a number of issues to overcome.

    Firstly, as your article states, there are fewer experienced engineers in the workplace, possibly never to return - this can be said of other industries not just engineering. Who, then, will train them whilst they are in the workplace and not in college?

    Secondly, have you ever trained a new junior member of staff yourself for more than a few days? I have recruited, hired, trained and even let go a great many over the last 20+ years. Bearing in mind the sheer volume of time and effort required from those who line manage and train apprentices, it is rare that any 1:1 support will enable a more senior employee to train an apprentice and also operate at 100% effectiveness, and this percentage of efficiency drops the more instructees there are.

    Added to this is the fact that many apprentices have little or no work experience before joining a program, and can naturally struggle with the demands of working life and culture after the more sheltered environment of school. Their parents and teachers (as a rule, of course this is a blanket statement) are on hand help with everything from getting them out of bed and dropping them at the school gates, to providing after hours coaching with subjects and homework. Unlike the mixed medium/halfway house that is continued full time education at College or University, the world of work has harsher expectations and consequences for those who don't shape up fast. Basics such as timekeeping, absence, social behaviour, appropriate workplace discipline, being told what to do by people other than parents/teachers and who demonstrate less patience, and unequivocally having to complete the apprentice programme study assignments, are all things that, when I have spoken with apprentices, prove to be the hardest adjustments.

    The best HR Team, with the greatest will in the world, cannot overcome all of these things when you consider HR also has to prepare, coach, train and support line managers on how to manage young people in apprentice programs, and be on hand to provide much needed guidance when employee relations issues raise their inevitable head.

    Decisions on the preparatory effort and investment to implement an apprentice scheme rarely sit with HR instead of Finance, and a company apprenticeship programme will fail if there is not buy in from the top down. Tangible results for a business after implementing an apprentice scheme can take time, and growing your own talent, whilst having a great effect on succession within the ranks over a period of time, will not fix skilled position gaps that exist today - this often leads to the investment being given to filling urgent skilled current vacancies and leaving the future to look after itself.

    I am all for apprentice schemes! I have seen some great ones, and have helped implement a few in my time. I have also seen them fail for many of the above reasons, and so many more than I could list here. I just feel that to complain it is all HR's fault for not being on board with apprentice programmes is a little rich coming from someone whose article featured in an HR publication, and yet didn't seem to quote or sympathise with any HR spokespersons on the subject at all.

    As for why there were so few HR attendees at EngTechNow, I would hazard a comment that HR invites to these sorts of events are pretty rare. Happy to be proven wrong on this comment by other readers, but as a Senior HR Practitioner within a national engineering firm I certainly didn't get an invite!