Much has been made of the IT skills gap that has emerged in the UK over the past number of years.
It is a gap caused by a phenomenal growth in the technology sector, and the single greatest period of wealth creation in the history of the world.
Giants like Google, Apple and Facebook battle it out for the best software engineers and developers, offering lifestyle and office perks as well as strong financial incentives.
Meanwhile, smaller players often struggle to match the rewards of these giants, and we are constantly reminded that there are simply not enough graduates with the requisite skills to quench the demand.
There is, however, another skills gap that exists.
It does not receive the same level of media and government attention as that of the technology sector, but it is undoubtedly more pronounced, and arguably more dangerous to the wider economy and society.
That gap is in engineering.
“Engineers, both in Britain and around the world, are becoming an endangered species”
Engineers, both in Britain and around the world, are becoming an endangered species.
And, unlike the skills gap in technology, it has not been caused by an exponential growth in available jobs.
By and large, the amount of engineers required to keep the economy running has not changed substantially in recent years.
Changing face of engineering
The skills gap has arisen because there are simply not enough qualified graduates to replace the number of engineers that are retiring, and this is a creating a huge issue in the UK.
Government figures estimate that we are coming up short by about 10,000 engineering graduates each year.
This is not just a shortfall – this is a gap that is threatening full-on collapse.
Twenty years ago, the technology sector was just beginning to find its feet, and the internet was a nascent entity whose power and reach today could scarcely be imagined.
Engineering was, for all intents and purposes, still at the cutting edge of all that was new and exciting, and still attracting some of the brightest minds.
“Engineers used to be much more customer facing, selling in solutions rather than simply placed in front of a screen all day”
Career paths and opportunities in computer engineering and software were not as clearly defined as they are today, and those with a proclivity for mathematics and problem solving more often than not found themselves studying engineering.
On top of this, there was a bigger emphasis on apprenticeships and graduation paths, developing practical skills alongside classroom teaching and theory.
Engineers used to be much more customer facing, selling in solutions rather than simply placed in front of a screen all day.
The step changes in technology were slower and easier to comprehend, especially compared to the extreme evolution attributed to Moore’s law, and the rapid changes that computing technology has witnessed.
Undoubtedly, many who once would have become engineers have been ‘lost’ to the technology sector.
The shortfall in engineering graduates might tempt some to decry Silicon Valley, and the vortex of talent that it has created, but if history has taught us one thing, it is that technological progress cannot be halted.
The luddites did not win.
The irony of the brain drain is that the wheel is beginning to turn full circle.
Engineering and technology are now more closely intertwined than ever before, and the physical and digital worlds are starting to converge.
Smart buildings and cities are evolving all the time, and the Internet of Things is gaining momentum.
As a result, there has never been a more exciting time to be an engineer.
“Engineering and technology are now more closely intertwined than ever before”
They are the key holders to shaping our future, providing the link between software and the elements with which we actually physically interact – cars, buildings, trains, roads and bridges.
The challenge now is to attract talent and numbers back into the profession, and provide the right education and career opportunities.
Alongside increased government funding, the industry itself needs to be proactive, investing in the future.
Training academies and apprenticeships must be a priority, creating the right environments and infrastructure to not only attract the talent, but also foster and develop it.
For too long engineering has lacked diversity, and new initiatives also present a chance to address that historic imbalance, as well as help secure the industry’s future.
That future is one that is under threat, but with a coordinated strategy, and the right level of investment, engineering can once again thrive in the UK.
Eddie Coxon is vice president of buildings at Schneider Electric UK & Ireland