Where have all the engineers gone?

Following the launch of the IET’s 2013 Skills Survey and the Sector Response we received a letter from one of our members, Harry Cather, regarding the skills shortage. Harry presents some interesting insights to how senior engineers could engage and help with the shortage…..

British Industry has been unsuccessful for the last 140 years in persuading financiers to invest in modernising and updating equipment and employees.  During trade cycles many companies find it difficult to retain all of their employees and implement a policy of hire/fire. Many of the engineers discarded, unsurprisingly, don’t return when demand picks up.

The recent rise of globalisation has resulted in further engineers leaving the industry either through redundancy or by choice.

We need them back, once again!

The report below outlines how we arrived at this situation and proposes a scheme to persuade engineers who may require some updating to return. The report addresses in particular why recruitment of senior personnel has developed into a major problem that could be within the remit of the proposed scheme.

Several successful past programs within UK industry are briefly referred to, before the report moves onto suggesting a possible scheme which uses tried and tested methods.  How it could be funded is also addressed.

The scheme suggested will have multiple routes of entry and could be delivered on a full or part-time basis.  The latter may be attractive to interested groups such as women and early retirees.  The content will be specific to a company and be a blend of on-the-job and off-the-job learning.

The report concludes with a proposition of how existing and future engineers’ know-how can be kept up-to-date using a CPD methodology.

Where have all the engineers gone?

Having lead the world for half the years since the start of the Industrial Revolution, British Industry now finds itself without sufficient engineers, especially at a senior level, to support a healthy economic recovery.

If this is true, how did this happen, and can anything be done about it?

The answer to the first part of this question is “By continuing to take the easy option over many years”.  The answer to the second part is “Yes, something can be done - if we make the effort!”

How did we get here?

The UK‘s industrial position in the late 1800s and its reaction to events then set the modus operandi ever since.

British companies had invested considerably in the means of production during the 1800s, and reaped a considerable amount of capital.  This capital was heavily invested overseas rather than at home after 1860.
The emergence of the United States and then Germany in the latter part of the Nineteenth Century could have been combated by investing in improving British production means in all areas.  However, as the world market was still growing, it was found easier to only invest in home areas where a healthy profit could still be easily made.  The remainder of the capital was invested outwards where there were good returns.  The world demand was big enough to allow early competitors.

This attitude prevailed up until the First World War.  The war itself was a costly business and we recouped some of that by repatriating machinery from the defeated alliance.  This meant that there was little reason to purchase new, more efficient machinery in the years following this war.

The years between the wars were years of low world demand and recession and this restricted investment opportunities.

The Second World War was even costlier than the first and heavily reduced our overseas investment.

The period after WWII, saw a large demand for British goods and capital.  We dealt with this by increasing the availability of labour through immigration rather than through increasing the efficiency of industry.  The capital demand of nationalising key industries and increasing expenditure on improving infrastructure and housing stock also limited investment for modernisation.  European industry equipment was more heavily damaged than the UK and therefore was renewed as well as its superstructure.

After 1960, British industry entered a period of government stop-go economic policies and saw a decline fuelled by low investment, poor management and intransient unions.  During this period some government effort was put into encouraging industry to modernise equipment through tax allowances and to improve training through schemes such as training levies.

From the mid 1980s, considerable globalisation occurred leading to movement of manufacturing facilities towards very low cost countries.  This resulted in considerable sections of British manufacturing disappearing and other areas being severely cost compressed.  The know-how that workers carried in their heads perhaps perished with their industries.

The net result of the last century was that British Industry had continually failed to invest sufficiently in replacing its labour intensive working practises, either with improved machinery or increased training.  There were always easier returns available for investors.  Worse than that, in the last fifty years there was considerably reduced investment in training.
Traditional apprenticeships fell by almost 80% between 1963 and 1990 - from almost a quarter of a million, to a little over fifty thousand.   In its place, formal education expanded at secondary and in further and higher levels but could not replace the practical hands-on experience.  Reduced in-company training of employees was another outcome of tight company finances.

Net result –too few skilled and experienced engineers within industry, yet there are a lot of talented engineers outside their vocation, many of them within the ranks of the unemployed.

Why is there especially a shortage of senior engineers?

Following from the above, the pool of experienced engineers within industry has correspondingly shrunk and many of those in post are unwilling to give up a safe position to take on the risk of a new position.

It takes years to build up the width and depth of experience required and the flattening of organisational levels have removed some of the stepping stones where lower level authority could be developed.  The extra span of control has also reduced the ability of senior personnel to develop their junior staff, or even to look ahead to determine when new senior positions may need filling for succession planning.

Finally there are the problems in recruiting for a senior post.  Common errors are:
•    Failing to look in-house and develop potential replacements;
•    Looking for an exact replica of previous job-holder;
•    Looking for a candidate who matches all requirements immediately;
•    Relying on using very expensive external recruiters;
•    Not getting senior personnel involved in the process early enough.
What can be done?

There is a simple solution.

We need to bring back some of the missing engineers and give them further development and training to bolster their existing skills and experience.  This is cheaper and less time consuming than training from scratch.

Yes it does appear to be simple, but it does require a lot of effort to rectify the situation.

If we look at examples from the UK there are many where a large investment in training has been carried out successfully.  A few of the notable situations were:
•    Invergordon Smelter – this was built in the 1970s and staffed with local ex-farm hands with an imported level of supervision and engineers from outside or elsewhere in the company.  As it expanded up to full production the supervisors were mainly upgraded from these “green” workers;
•    Oil Rig Construction in the 1970s.  Initially used a lot of previously skilled people but soon developed their own pool of in-house trained craftsmen;
•    Nissan Car Factory is one of Nissan’s top performing plants.  In the mid 1980s it trained most of its shop floor from local unemployed workers.  Nissan has been followed by Honda and Toyota with BMW and Tata taking over UK car manufacturing plants;
•    Throughout the years from 1884 (Singer Sewing Machines), there have been companies from USA, Europe and Japan establishing manufacturing and design facilities with the UK;
•    The replacement of men by women in jobs, especially munitions work, during both world wars.

In addition to training a workforce from scratch, the above have all been implemented using the skills and experience of UK engineers, many of whom had to learn new techniques and processes whilst doing so.

There is an added advantage to retraining in that more mature employees tend to bring greater commitment to their job than those fresh from college and university.

How do we do this?

It requires a concentrated investment in time and money.

The process must be Work Based.  One solution would be to develop schemes similar in operation to Knowledge Transfer Partnerships (KTP) and Apprenticeships, but not just an exact copy.  It must be specific to a company and highly flexible as the person progresses and the company’s needs change.  The company should be able to make use of the trainee immediately for lower level work.

The report “Development of Knowledge and Skills in Employment” (1998)   is a good starting point as it looks at how employees learn on-the-job at various levels in organisations.  The point is made in this report is that much of the learning arises naturally out of the job experience and this engenders a contextual need to know within the learner which drives the learning process.
The use of Reflective Practice can deepen the learner’s understanding of Critical Incidents and draw out possible alternative approaches to situations as in Kolb’s Model of Learning.

Kolb’s Model of Learning

Doug Richard’s Review of Apprenticeships (2012) agrees in recommending that a blend of on-the-job and further education be devised and suggests an apprenticeship should not be time based, but completed by demonstrating competence.

How should this be funded?

There are a number of ways that has been tried in the past.
•    Individual companies pay the total cost.  Historical method, but it allows free riders who poach the trained person without contributing to the cost;
•    Government covers the full cost.  Tried but fails to fully involve industry, and most of the training is done off site;
•    Industry covers the cost through a universal levy.  Has been tried in UK and worldwide but with uneven success as shown in the World Bank Primer;
•    The employee covers the cost.  Beyond the reach of many, even with loans as returners can have a short working life left to recoup the cost;
•    Funded by a combination of the above, similar to how a KTP is funded, i.e. the company and government share the cost, with the company’s contribution dependent on its size.

The advantage of the later shared contribution is that having the trainee based within the company’s organisation and part of the costs being funded by the company guarantees its involvement and ownership of the process and ensures the trainee is used.

Costs could be reduced by using part-time or job sharing conditions at the start which may particularly attract some candidates wanting to re-enter the profession, e.g. women, early retirees, unemployed and carers, by giving a gentler re-entry.

It may also mean a form of indenture has to be developed to ensure that the trainee does not immediately jump ship on completing his development.  This is fairly common in newly developed countries such as Malaysia, where locals cannot afford university education and receive government funding with a requirement to work for government agencies for a period afterwards.

If successful, how can skills be maintained?

Looking at the past, it appears that only a legal compulsion ensures that knowledge and skills are kept up to date effectively.  This does happen in the UK at present, for example:
•    Nursing;
•    Pharmacists;
•    Teachers;
•    Gas fitters;
•    Electrical regulations for home wiring.

It is not possible to employ, or work, in these areas without using registered personnel.

Engineering institutions such as the IET already have fully developed CPD schemes for engineers and technicians which are not compulsory as yet.  Making them so and applying the same consequences to employing unqualified persons would go a long way towards keeping skills updated and would increase the status of the engineering practitioners.  In the examples above, organisations often share the cost of the CPD activities and allow time off to gain knowledge.
A legal need to use registered engineering professionals and technicians should also ensure companies value these employees’ skills and develop them through succession planning.  It will not stop redundancies occurring, but it may make companies consider their future needs more fully.

It would stop staff’s skills and experience deteriorating over time and guarantee continuing their contribution through continual updating of their knowhow base.

Author Overview

Harry Cather is a Chartered Engineer – MIET & MCMI who takes a problem solving approach when analysing complex administration and industrial processes.  He designs positive inputs which reduce or eliminate negative effects and then sells his solution at all levels within an organisation.  He then generates revised procedures that depict the new process stages and develop training for existing and new staff.

Harry was a senior lecturer in management at the University of Brighton, and while there was seconded to a UNECIA project in Malaysia for a year.  On return he became the Course Leader for all departmental HND courses including coordinating with partner colleges and a college in Malaysia.  He attained IET accreditation for updating and expanding the HND suite.

While at UoB, he supervised Knowledge Transfer Schemes within industry and carried out brief consultancy in the UK and abroad with British Executive Services Overseas.  He is also a lead author for IET textbooks on design and business management.

Latterly, Harry has been a business mentor, an e-learning tutor, part time college lecturer and a member of several UNESCO working groups revising technician and entrepreneurial courses overseas.

Harry has always been a keen learner and holds postgraduate degrees (MBA & MSc), several postgraduate certificates/diplomas, a teaching certificate and the NVQ assessor units and has received Jonah training through the Goldratt Institute.  Recently he has updated his skills through e-based courses in Diversity, Health & Safety, IT, ET and Customer Services.