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A Practical Answer to the Skills Shortages Debate?

28 February 2012

Graeme Phillips, Autodesk Program Manager EMEA for KnowledgePoint suggests more post-education, vocational training could help bridge the gap

The UK’s engineering industry may be set to experience recruitment difficulties, according to the 2011 ACE State of Business survey published in December 2011. Around a quarter of respondents to the survey (27%) indicated difficulties in recruiting staff over the past year. This compares with only 5% in 2010’s survey. Respondents also indicated that recruitment is set to become more difficult over the next two years.

Nelson Ogunshakin OBE, ACE chief executive, said: “the engineering sector needs to see a fresh flow of new recruits to replace those leaving the industry. The current economic situation will not last forever, and when the economy recovers we need to have the skills in place to maintain a competitive, world-leading engineering industry.”

The experience of many leading employers further highlights the issue of skills shortages. so there is little doubt that a problem does exist. Trevor Garlick, head of BP’s North Sea operations recently commented that one of the company's biggest problems was finding the right people with the right skills to fill vacant positions.

When asked what the biggest barrier to growth at BP would be, he said: "skills – getting hold of the right people is a real issue for us.”

Bodies such as the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE) have also researched the skills shortage problem. IMechE estimates that the UK needs over 31,000 new graduate engineers every year for the next five years to meet predicted industry demand in 2017. Currently, just 12,000 engineering students graduate annually.

No wonder that, in a recent OnePoll survey carried out on behalf of KnowledgePoint, almost half of the design engineering professionals polled saw skills shortages in their industry as “serious”.

Rather than a general skills shortage, the issue appears to be a lack of the right skills. Arguably, the problem would be better reframed as a “skills transfer” challenge. . Elsewhere it is proposed that we are looking at a cultural question rather than a training or education problem as companies increasingly want to employ individuals who fit into the whole ethos of their organisation and brand. In other words, they want new employees that will hit the ground running rather than take time to become embedded into their organisation.

Scratching only just below the surface, it seems that a key factor in the situation is the growing divide between teaching in some schools and universities and what is actually needed in the workplace.
Whereas some educational establishments are exemplary in their close collaboration with both industry and software developers to ensure that their teaching is totally current, others fall short with outdated, “dead-end” courses. The OnePoll survey reflected this with almost half of respondents believing that the current education system is making the situation worse by not providing students with the right skillset.

Design engineering is a good example of an area where the shortfall between teaching and current thinking can be marked, mainly because of the pace of change and progress in the profession over the past few years. Digitisation has brought changes in concept design, workflow, testing and analysis and the way in which prototypes are developed. It has eliminated the need for complex but often tedious calculations and coordination which often dominated working processes. As a result, many methods and formulae that were once vital are no longer required.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with learning traditional methods of working. However, these need to be complemented by current skills if a student wants to be able to be of real value to a future employer.

So what is the answer? Perhaps there is something in the rise in popularity of IT Certification, a sign that employers are re-thinking the concept of on-the-job training. This trend also underlines the current demand for a global standard which can reassure employers (who are not necessarily as technically skilled as the applicants themselves) that a potential recruit is capable of doing the job.

It is apparent that more Certification won’t fill the skills gap. However it does provide a universal standard to ensure consistency and relevance of skills. By asking for the right Certification rather than a qualification which has no uniformity across the country or even the globe and reveals little of the level of skills offered, employers can be more confident of employing graduates or older applicants, for example.

It also allows well-trained candidates to differentiate themselves from their competitors in the jobs market.  The KnowledgePoint survey indicates that a good majority (59%) of those polled thought it was important to have Certification and 51% claimed they would be interested in pursuing Certification themselves. This suggests that individuals increasingly want to take responsibility for their own training.

Disappointingly though, only half said that their organisation actively encouraged them to pursue these qualifications. Yet this is an area where Western Europe is lagging behind the rest of the world. The US has the largest Certification market in the world, but growth is rapid in the BRIC economies – Brazil, Russia, India and China – and in Eastern Europe, regions where the overall expansion of the IT market has accelerated dramatically over recent years. Consequently, UK and other European businesses need to respond as Certification becomes a factor in tendering for work, for example.

Perhaps, though, the most telling verdict comes when the KnowledgePoint survey results are broken down by age. A decisive 71% of respondents in the 35 – 54 years age group said that they thought that Certification was important, compared with 51% of 18 – 24 year olds.

Older engineers with traditional skills have learnt that changing working practices can make those who are unprepared more vulnerable. Keeping up-to-date with Certification is one way to learn current methods and improve capability.

With the current economic statistics showing little sign of sustained growth and the ongoing Euro crisis, the jobs market looks set to remain volatile. The debate over skills shortages look set to continue. In the meantime, those who take responsibility for keeping their own knowledge and capability up-to-date and totally relevant will be those who win through in the end.

For further information, please contact:

KnowledgePoint Ltd
5 Cutbush Park,
Lower Earley,
RG6 4UT,
United Kingdom

Telephone: 0118 918 1500
Fax: 0118 918 1501
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