October 2016

I was recently told, by a professor at another learned institution, that engineers generally make dull speakers. This is because they tend to focus on the solution to a problem, rather than engaging their audience with the beauty of the problem. So I shall respond to this feedback by discussing an issue to which we have, as yet, no solution. The subject matter is education and skills, which have always been important agenda items for the Society, as has the important task of attracting young people to our sector. The Society’s outreach activities are universally acclaimed for their entertaining and inspiring character but, in spite of these efforts and those of many other organisations, the supply and retention of skilled people remains a concern across the sector, particularly for aircrew, engineers and technicians but also, I suspect, across a broader range of disciplines.

Successful promotion of the sector to younger people is not as straightforward is it seems. Our focused outreach events effectively compete with an incessant (well, weekly) diet of talent shows on TV. My experience of education projects with other charities indicates that, to influence young people over the long term, we really need sustained intervention in schools. This is not easy, given the tight constraints on curricula and the commitment required from both teaching staff and volunteers but the Schools Build-a-Plane Challenge has shown the way. The daunting task is to scale up such activities to very large numbers of schools and this can surely only be done in partnership with other bodies and, dare I say, with political support.

The more specific supply problem for engineers and technicians is one of the topics presently under review by the UK professional engineering institutions. It would be nice to report a consensus view from the PEIs but the responses to a recent consultation have instead been an eye-opener in terms of conflicting views, both about the nature of the recruitment/retention problem and the necessary actions. This diversity of opinion cries out for some objective and quantitative analysis around supply and demand which has been sadly lacking from many recent reports into the subject. There are some recurring issues which particularly need following up: for example, the mismatch between the objectives of the education ‘industry’ and the needs of employers. These needs are not always clearly nor consistently expressed. I have heard various employer expectations of new graduates, ranging from ‘understanding the basics thoroughly’ right through to being able to ‘hit the ground running’ with sophisticated analysis tools. Engineering graduates from newer or less prestigious courses can struggle to get interviews, despite the robust QA in higher education (including the Society’s own accreditation visits). Job applicants are also bemused by the much larger market for those with experience, compared with the number of opportunities for interns or trainees. Meanwhile, we ask young people to take on greater and greater financial burdens to satisfy the skills requirements of (potential) employers. Are these skills rewarded with jobs also involving creativity, judgement and responsibility? Many of these observations can be applied equally to the prospects for aspiring pilots. The paradox is that each one of these challenges to young people seeking a rewarding career have been individually justified from isolated perspectives of standards, affordability and risk while, collectively, they contribute to the supply problem. I fear that we haven’t understood the issues sufficiently well before getting stuck into the problem-solving: a classic example of poor engineering, whether aeronautical or social.

In conclusion, the problems of recruitment, development and retention of young talent are complex and, while our own activities do indeed complete parts of the jigsaw, there is a real need for the Society to work more closely with our partners to understand and address the system-wide issues.

Professor Chris Atkin CEng FRAeS