Time for The Engineering Factor?

Subscribe to Campaigning blog feeds

Published

My name is Verity O'Keefe. I am 26 years old. And I love reality TV shows.

Given this statement you can imagine my excitement at the fact that the X Factor returns to our screens on Saturday night – Saturday nights in become the new Saturday nights out. It is also, as my sister pointed out to me last week, the unofficial countdown to Christmas – as the winner's song is a strong contender for Christmas number one.

*If you are currently slightly confused thinking this was a blog about manufacturing just bear with me*

One of the things that always strikes me when watching the audition episodes (the best ones really) is the thousands of people, of all ages, willing to stand outside (probably in the cold and rain), queuing for hours on end, just to see if a two-minute audition could land them the ‘job of the lifetime'.

Unfortunately the same doesn't quite happen when employers have a job opening in the ‘real word'. Now admittedly the jobs on offer may not lead to a million-pound record deal, a more than likely Christmas number one, and multiple appearances in glossy magazines and sitting on morning television sofas discussing their ‘roller-coaster journey', but they do have a lot to offer, yet can't get the people to fill their posts.

So what's on offer? Firstly there are ample opportunities – Engineering UK predicts there will be around 2.74 million job openings in engineering companies up to 2020 (including those working in other industries such as construction).

There are also some pretty nifty reward packages – the median basic annual salary for a Chartered Engineer is now at £60,000, the average pay for an Engineering Apprentice is £7.03 (and that's just to train) and as we reported this week, average pay deals are running at 2.6% in manufacturing.

Yet, four in five manufacturers are struggling to recruit. Two-third say the reason for these difficulties is that candidates lack the right technical skills, over half say applicants lack relevant experience, almost half say applicants lack relevant qualifications and almost half say an insufficient number of applicants. The latter is particularly important – as it seems the hordes of people queuing up in cities across the country for a glimpse of the celebrity lifestyle (and possiblY the Judge's Houses) aren't exactly lining up for jobs in manufacturing.

We know that companies are struggling to both attract people to the industry, and also attract people with the right skills and experience into the industry. UKCES research has found that the number of hard-to-fill vacancies in manufacturing has increased from 30% in 2011, to 35%.

This is likely to reflect the difficulties manufacturing has in attracting people into the industry in the first instance. The image of manufacturing remains a significant challenge and is one of the fundamental reasons why our industry has a severe gender imbalance. Steps are being taken to overcome this – industry and government campaigns to tackle the perceptions of what it means to be an ‘engineer' and the various opportunities within manufacturing and engineering more widely.

UKCES research has also shown that the number of posts that are skills-shortage-vacancies (vacancies which are difficult to fill as candidates lack the right skills and qualifications specifically) is also on the rise. More and more orders are coming in and manufacturers are looking to recruit (EEF's own research has shown that manufacturers' plans to increase numbers of employees has been positive for 19 consecutive quarters) but employers are struggling to find both the quantity and quality of skills required.

Yet what they are looking for isn't as challenging for someone to acquire as those aspiring singers waiting in the X Factor audition wings.

Take recruitment of apprentices for example – what do manufacturers prioritise?

• 77% are looking for a willingness to learn• 71% look for passion and enthusiasm for the industry among candidates• 76% prioritise maths and science qualifications

So attainment in maths and science qualifications, together with passion for the job and willingness to learn and succeed is likely to get you through?

Compare that to the perhaps ‘unwritten criteria' of a Final 12 X Factor hopeful. Number one is of course a good voice but even those that don't have the greatest of voices get through if they have stand out personalities (the days of Jedward and more recently Rylan Clark). Then there is ‘the look' – “You look like a popstar” – I have never quite understood what that means but I don't think I would make the cut. And of course if you haven't got either of these then you can always go down the road of ‘my hamster died three years ago, or ‘this is my last chance' (you then see them rock up on rival TV show The Voice).

So what is manufacturing doing wrong that Mr Simon Cowell is doing so right? Competition? Possibly? However, many organisations do fantastic work organising engineering competitions with young people to get them interested in the sector. The British Science Association last year had a manufacturing category, the Big Bang Fair integrates competition into its events, and Primary Engineer, supported by many EEF members holds regional and national competitions for the engineers of the future.

Anything else? Profile? Whatever you may think of him Mr Cowell is quite the media mogul and love it or hate it, there are not many people that don't know about The X Factor is. Yet sitting in the back of a taxi yesterday trying to explain to the driver what manufacturing consists of (I had just been picked up from EEF's Apprentice Training Centre) it was clear to me that we haven't quite done the job.

National Campaigns such as Tomorrow's Engineer Week have been effective, but the focus remains on 11-14 year olds. Yes it is important to get those young people, making those crucial decisions to consider a job in engineering, but I can't help but think that the message needs to be far louder and far wider. Manufacturing and engineering needs to become part of our everyday conversation – so next time I strike up conversation with a cabbie, my reality-TV loving sister or anyone else, and explain I was talking to a room full of manufacturing and engineering companies about apprenticeships, they don't quickly move the conversation on.

Perhaps it is time we create The Engineering Factor?

Author

Head of Education & Skills Policy

Other articles from this author >
Online payments are not supported by your browser. Please choose an alternative browser or make payments through the 'Other payment options' on step 3.