There’s little doubt that engineering remains a crucial driver for the UK economy. According to the Inter-departmental Business Register (IDBR), the engineering sector generated just over a fifth of the UK’s total turnover in 2018.
Despite its importance to our economy, the sector has faced some significant challenges over the years. And while ongoing recovery from the 2008 financial crisis and uncertainty around Brexit remain areas of concern, perhaps the most pressing issue to address is the growing skills gap in engineering.
An EngineeringUK 2018 report found that engineering is a crucial sector for raising the UK’s productivity levels. Research by the Centre for Economics and Business Research found that the engineering sector had a strong multiplier effect on the economy, generating a further £1.45 Gross Value Added (GVA) for every £1 GVA created directly in the engineering industries. What’s more, every additional person employed through engineering activity was projected to create a further 1.74 jobs down the supply chain. Overall, they estimated that the engineering sector generated 25 per cent of the UK’s total GDP in 2015 (£420.5 billion).
Given its share of the UK’s enterprise, the engineering sector employs a significant portion of the overall UK workforce. In 2016, 5.66 million people were working in engineering, accounting for 18.9 per cent of the UK’s workforce. The largest proportion of 42.4 per cent were employed in manufacturing, followed by information and communication 19.5 per cent and 17.2 per cent working in construction.
As the engineering sector continues to evolve in the face of technological, demographic and socio-economic factors, so too does the skills requirement. According to a 2018 government study, for the engineering sector to gain enough candidates to reduce the skills shortage, they would need around 186,000 skilled recruits each year until 2024. Mechanical, electrical, electronic, chemical and software engineers are particularly sought after, with design, production and maintenance opportunities existing in numerous industries.
When it comes to university education, engineering and technology are more ethnically diverse than most other subject areas. Students from Black and Minority Ethnicity (BME) backgrounds accounted for 31.8 per cent of UK domiciled first degree entrants, compared with 25.6% across all subject areas. 32.7 per cent of taught postgraduate entrants (compared with 22.5 per cent) and 21.7 per cent of postgraduate research entrants (compared with 16.5 per cent) were from BME backgrounds. While this is encouraging, there is remains a gap in degree attainment between white and BME students.
Even though the number of apprenticeships starts in engineering-related subject areas in England decreased by 10.3 per cent between 2016/17 and 2017/18, the same can’t be said for the rest of the UK for the same period. In fact, engineering-related framework starts increased by 2 per cent in Scotland, 10 per cent in Northern Ireland, and a staggering 28.8 per cent in Wales.
The gender disparity in engineering starts young. Boys are more likely to consider a career in engineering - there’s a 27.5 percentage point gap among those aged 11 to 14, which falls to 22.1 percentage points for those aged 16-19.
This gender gap continues into higher education. Women comprised just 16.1 per cent of first degree entrants in engineering and technology in 2016/17, compared with 50.5 per cent of STEM and 56.1 per cent of first degree entrants overall. It gets better at postgraduate level though, where women make up around a quarter of postgraduate engineering and technology students.
And although the gender pay gap continues to narrow over the past decade, from 27.5 per cent in 1997 to 18.4 per cent in 2017, engineering tells a bleaker tale. The median salary in annual gross pay for full-time employees across all professional engineering occupations was 18.7 per cent higher for men, or £41,545 compared with £35,000 for women.
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