Could Brexit leave the UK crying out for engineering skills?

25 Oct 17:00 by Scott Davidson


When the IET - one of the world’s largest engineering institutions – ran a skills survey of more than 400 employers last year, it highlighted fears that the engineering industry could be hard hit because of Brexit.


The respondents’ apprehension was not focused on a lack of interest in the industry – but rather that those wishing to become engineers will lack the necessary knowledge and skills.  In fact, 68% of respondents were concerned that the UK education system would not be able to address the needs of the engineering sector as it evolves.


So, should we worry?  Well, as yet, there has been no definitive guarantee from the government that the rights of highly skilled migrant workers will be protected once we leave the EU.  And there are some interesting moves from other EU countries to take advantage of this. 


One example is Spain’s Basque Country, a region that is capitalising on the uncertainty created by Brexit to lure back talent it has previously lost to the UK.


Whilst it’s a wealthy area and an industrial stronghold, in recent years it has failed to retain its talent.  On the back of high youth unemployment, thousands of highly skilled graduates and PhDs were tempted to look for job opportunities abroad, and indeed, many Basques work in Britain in science, technology and engineering positions. 


Interestingly, almost half of Basque graduates have science, technology and engineering qualifications – skills that are in high demand in the UK because not enough British students study those subjects.  It’s easy to see how the UK became a favoured destination for these young people as Spain endured a prolonged recession.  But now that flow is beginning to reverse. Spain’s economy is in recovery and what can be clearly seen is that Brexit is accelerating the process of people returning to their native country.


Let’s be frank, engineering is vital to the UK. It underpins half the country’s exports and makes a gross contribution of at least £280bn.


A rich seam of talent is fundamental to the UK’s position as a global leader in engineering. And so, to address the potential Brexit issues, it is absolutely vital that we maximise our own home-grown talent.


Let’s have a look at some statistics.   There are fewer female professional engineers in the UK than almost anywhere else in the world – just 9% of engineering and technology employees are women.


And it’s a fact that from the age of 16, mathematics or science are subjects that are dropped by many students. In any one year, from a population of around 550,000 students, less than 6% study maths and physics at A-level.


Engaging students in science, technology and engineering has to start in primary schools. We need inspirational teachers who spark curiosity in these subjects, but not all schools have the resources to offer stimulating STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) teaching. Teacher shortages in the STEM subjects must be tackled urgently if we are to grow our future skills base. You only need to watch an 8-year-old with a box of Lego to understand that our children have inherent engineering skills and interest. 


Another statistic, 63% of engineering businesses do not have gender diversity initiatives, and 73% do not have any kind of LGBT or ethnic diversity initiatives in place.


So, to address the potential shortfall in talent that Brexit may create, we need to find ways of inspiring our children to become the innovators and engineers of the future. We must examine how to provide work experience for those in education or training. Reskilling the UK’s workforce is an ongoing request from the engineering profession - especially the development of digital skills that will fuel future innovation - and we need to be more inclusive as an industry, calling on potential employees across the whole spectrum of society.