UK education still failing to produce sufficient engineers, says report

The updated Perkins Review finds that apprenticeship levy limitations and technical teacher shortages are among the factors threatening economic growth

A new report suggests that the UK education system cannot produce enough engineers to support the economy. Engineering Skills for the Future – the 2013 Perkins Review Revisited finds numerous barriers to addressing the annual shortfall of 59,000 engineers and technicians in the UK workforce, including narrow post-16 education options, teacher shortages and an overly restrictive apprenticeship levy.

The report, produced by Education for Engineering, examined multiple stages of the teaching system. In schools it found that, while pupil numbers have increased since 2015, teacher numbers for maths, science, computer science, and design and technology, have not kept pace; further, that government plans do not go far enough to address recruitment and retention challenges. It also warns that the current post-16 academic system is too narrow, and closes the door for many young people to technical and creative careers.

There has been little progress in addressing the UK’s engineering skills gap since I first reviewed the education system five years ago. Professor John Perkins

In higher education, where engineering is a high-cost subject requiring top-up grant funding and cross-subsidy, the report says that introducing differential fees could have a disastrous effect on take up of engineering degrees. It also identifies challenges with the apprenticeship levy. While welcome, the levy is underspent and difficult to navigate for employers, especially SMEs. It claims the engineering profession is missing out on valuable existing talent by not addressing bias in recruitment, progression and retention.

To address these challenges, says the report:

  • Government should review the issues affecting recruitment and retention of teachers, and introduce a requirement for 40 hours of subject-specific continuing professional development for all STEM teachers – not just new recruits – every year
  • An urgent review of post-16 academic education pathways for England is needed. Young people should have the opportunity to study mathematics, science and technology subjects – along with arts and humanities – up to the age of 18, to attract a broader range of young people into engineering
  • Government must ensure engineering courses are adequately funded, with increased top-up grants for engineering departments if tuition fees are to be reduced
  • Government should give employers greater control and flexibility in how they spend the apprenticeship levy. This should include supporting other high quality training provision in the workplace, such as improving the digital skills of the workforce
  • Professional engineering organisations and employers should address the need to up-skill engineers and technicians to prepare for the introduction of disruptive digital technologies into industry
  • Employers should take an evidence-based and data-driven approach to improve recruitment – and retention and progression – of underrepresented groups within organisations, including the introduction of recruitment targets for underrepresented groups

The report concludes that, if the industrial strategy is to achieve its aims, Government must nurture and grow its skilled engineering workforce to improve productivity and economic growth. It also found that, since the original Perkins Review, scant progress has been made in addressing the UK’s chronic engineering skills gap.

Government must nurture and grow its skilled engineering workforce

Professor John Perkins, who led the report, said: “Engineering is enormously valuable to the UK economy, but suffers from a chronic shortage of skills, let down by the education system that removes the option of an engineering career for too many young people at each stage of their education. There has been little progress in addressing the UK’s engineering skills gap since I first reviewed the education system five years ago, but the government’s Year of Engineering campaign in 2018 has shown what can be achieved with concerted and coordinated action. As a profession, we must continue to raise the profile of engineering nationally and leverage this to galvanise change.”

Click here to read the report in full

“We need to broaden the curriculum for post-16 education, value technical education on a par with academic progression, unlock more potential from the apprenticeship levy, and guarantee affordable, fair and inclusive access to engineering degrees,” he added. “These changes have the potential to pay dividends in the years to come for young people, the economy, and society.”

The publication of the report coincides with a new campaign by This is Engineering, a collaborative body looking to raise awareness of the breadth of careers in engineering, and offer opportunity to young people from all backgrounds. The campaign is led by the Royal Academy of Engineering, in collaboration with EngineeringUK and corporate partners, and was developed in response to a recommendation in the 2013 skills review.

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