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Different Strokes

The ACE and ICE are using different approaches to address the chronic skills shortage in the engineering sector. Seán Flynn reports.

The Association for Consultancy & Engineering (ACE) last week urged the government to add more engineering disciplines to its list of professions with skills shortages.

ACE officials met with officials from the UK Borders & Immigration Agency's engineering advisory panel to tell them that the UK is lacks specialists from civil, structural, building services and mechanical and electrical engineering.

VACANCIES AS A % OF TOTAL STAFF

DisciplineTotal vacanciesas a % of total staff
Civil 54314.3
Structural 30310.6
Building services 20710.8
Mechanical 10012.3
Electrical 9114.8
Other engineering including geotechnical 23215
Environmental including sustainability 27512.7
Project/programme managers 11717.4
Other consultancy 17312.9
Total Sum2041 13

Adding these disciplines to the government's list of professions facing skills shortages would make it easier for engineers from outside the European Union to gain UK work permits.

The ACE was acting on a survey it carried out last October. It identified recruitment and staff retention as "top five" issues for the construction industry.

This may be seen as stating the obvious, but by the end of January there were signs that the skills shortage was being taken more seriously by those outside construction, and this issue finally made it on to the political radar.

The House of Commons launched a major inquiry to be run by the committee for innovation, universities and skills. It is seeking submissions on the issue by 15 March.

"Immediate action is needed if we are to solve the engineering skills crisis," says ACE chief executive, Nelson Ogunshakin, welcoming the inquiry.

"Our recent investigation shows that there are today 20,000 unfilled vacancies in the consultancy and engineering sector alone."

The skills shortage has not escaped the attention of ICE either. Its State of the Nation report in January noted that "in recent years, the civil engineering industry has been looking beyond the UK to fill its skills gap, recruiting heavily from Australia, South Africa, Poland, China and India."

But unlike the ACE, the ICE prefers to focus on long term solutions, seeing improved education and staff retention as key factors.

The figures put together by the ACE paint the picture of an industry struggling to make up the numbers. The reported 20,000 unfilled engineering posts represent 13% of all situations vacant. At the top of the list is civil engineering and within the civils sphere, the toughest roles to fill are those at the senior structural level.

Given these worrying shortfalls, the ACE's calls to relax immigration controls so that more overseas engineers can work in the UK seems the most logical step to take.

If there are difficulties recruiting in the domestic market, then looking for easier ways to recruit from overseas is not exactly reinventing the wheel. After all, according to ACE research, 88% of the respondents to its survey were already actively recruiting abroad.

20,000 unfilled jobs in the consultancy & engineering sector

88% of companies recruit non-UK

Ogunshakin, who is also an ICE Council member, admits ACE's approach is pragmatic and deals with the short term needs of its commercially minded members. He says the Institution's approach is understandably different, focusing more on the profession's long-term needs for generations to come.

"The ACE represents the employers' side of the industry and because of where we sit in the industry, if these companies tell us they have issues, then we have a duty to address those issues with government agencies," he says.

With major projects like the 2012 Olympics, Crossrail, Thameslink and the M25 widening in the offing, industry needs to take a realistic short term view of how recruitment for these projects is conducted.

But engineering skills are not just at premium in the UK; look at any region in the world and the story is the same. From Durban to Dublin and all points in between, civil engineering skills are in short su after and in a competitive global market, it does not make a great deal of sense to put obstacles in the way of expeditious recruitment.

ICE State of the Nation panel chairman Keith Miller takes a slightly different view of the global market.

"As soon as global demand for these workers increases, then supply will dry up," he says.

"Besides," he adds, "there are all sorts of questions that should be asked about whether we should be taking valuable skilled workers away from their own countries where they are needed."

But he also says: "There's no doubt however that the ACE view is prudent in the short term."

Some senior sources at ICE are less perturbed by talk of skills shortages and a massive influx of foreign workers.

"We've seen it all before," says one experienced member.

"We're told there's a massive skills shortage but you know what? We just got through it, we found the people to do the job."

In contrast, another took the view that engineers from overseas were likely to be a boon to the profession here in the UK and pointed to a high level of involvement in the ICE on the part of members initially employed from overseas.

"The ICE is right, overseas recruitment is a short-term solution to the skills shortage. By the same token, the ACE is right to lobby to make recruitment easier."

Ogunshakin, with a foot in both camps freely acknowledges that the ACE is advocating a short-term solution but as he points out "we need to do something in the short term". Facilitating a less daunting immigration regime would, in Ogunshakin's words, be part of "a cocktail of remedies" which would incorporate short and long term solutions to the problem.

The UK Borders & Immigration Agency engineering sector advisory panel will consider the evidence presented by ACE and is expected to respond within the next two weeks. The panel then makes its recommendations to Immigration minister Tony McNulty in April.

National skills shortage list

A broad outline of the skills shortage (not a definitive list)

  • Transportation and Highways Engineers: eg. traffic engineers, transport planners

  • Ground Engineering: eg. engineering geologists, geoenvironmental engineer, chartered quantity surveyors

  • General: audiologists, clinical psychologists, dieticians, occupational therapists, pharmacists

  • Nurses: Midwives, audiology nurses in audiology, cardiac, physiology, surgical nurses

  • Healthcare occupations:Doctors, salaried GPs, dentists. Consultant posts such as accident & emergency, anaesthetics, cardiology, chemical pathology etc.

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