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The Present & Future of Engineering

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James Kenealey Employer Hub

2018 is the Year of Engineering. Adrian Adair, operations director, discusses what the wider industry can do to find the next generation of engineers.

It’s an exciting time to work in engineering. Record levels of investment and a host of major infrastructure projects, including HS2, Hinkley Point C and airport expansions, makes it a great time to consider a career in the sector.

Public and private sector organisations are pumping billions of pounds into new build and improvement programmes that are helping the UK to cement its reputation as a centre for global engineering excellence. With so many different projects happening right now and a number of disciplines essential to their delivery, there’s a growing urgency for skills. The sector continues to be hit hard by the well-publicised shortage of talent and those working within the sector are actively looking for new and innovative ways to source the next generation of engineers.

One company that is making a real impact by attracting new talent and developing the next generation of trailblazers, is Morson International. The UK’s leading technical recruiter supplies thousands of engineers to projects across the globe but this limited talent pool is making candidate-sourcing increasingly competitive.

“Many of the major projects that we’re supplying the skills for will reach their peak at similar points and these overlapping schedules put an even bigger strain on the talent needed to deliver on time and on budget as we’re competing for skills within the same pool,” explains Morson International’s operations director, Adrian Adair. “There’s no quick fix to the skills shortage but luckily we’re still at a point in the delivery cycle where there’s enough time to train candidates.”

Long-term demands

According to data from the University of Dundee, CITB and Experian, the unprecedented demand for skills in order to deliver HS2, for example, will require 4,980 construction operatives, 1,015 designers and 735 project managers each month over the course of the 26-year project delivery period.

Adrian continues: “We’re fortunate that the engineering sector provides so many positives that work in our favour when attracting new talent. Investing in infrastructure is a long-term business that brings sustainability in careers and one of the highest starting salaries.”

Yet it isn’t just monetary benefits that attract people into engineering. According to a recent survey of 2,000 active contractors by Morson International, candidates are hungry for opportunities that offer lifestyle benefits, particularly flexibility, as well as career progression and prestige in their work portfolio.

Adrian explains: “One of the simplest ways to bridge the skills gap is by training the next generation of professionals and skilled workers. We already deliver intermediate apprenticeships through our dedicated training arm, Morson Vital Training, and recently partnered with the National College for High Speed Rail to give our apprentices access to higher level pathways, right through to degree level.”

However, Morson and the college alone cannot supply the full industry need. Around 30 per cent of the current rail workforce need extra training to deliver HS2, so the company are also looking at new ways to upskill and attract talent from other sectors that already possess similar skillsets.

Military means

Morson International casts its recruitment net outside of the traditional talent pool by targeting ex-military personnel, in particular. The company has a long history of supporting the British military and is committed to helping the armed forces reintegrate into successful civilian careers. The Morson team is headed up by ex-forces personnel who understand the significant life change of this transition and help service leavers to translate their military experience into employer benefits. The company has more than 500 ex-military personnel working on client projects at any one time and was recently awarded the Employer Recognition Scheme (ERS) Gold Award – the Ministry of Defence’s highest badge of honour for organisations that have signed the Armed Forces Covenant and demonstrate outstanding support for those who serve and have served.

The skills debate must also remain a top priority for academics, with more effort needed to encourage young people into STEM related subjects, especially females. Doubling the number of women working in the sector would add an extra 96,000 people to the UK workforce.

The latest ‘State of Engineering’ report from Engineering UK found that just seven per cent of engineering apprentices in the North West are female. Furthermore, just one in three 11-16 years olds know what path to take to become an engineer and less than a third (29 per cent) actually know what an engineer does.

“Gender stereotypes are established long before teenagers start considering a career,” explains Adrian. “They’re all around us and play a big part in encouraging and discouraging girls into technical jobs. Around half of all female engineers enter the industry through a family connection, showing the importance of role models and the need to challenge the perceptions held by schools, teachers and parents.”

Morson International has pledged to double the number of females it has in engineering roles by the end of the decade. Currently, the recruiter has more than 1,800 female contractors in various roles throughout the globe, yet in engineering, the number of females compared to males sits at 7.5 per cent.

The company has also partnered with the Girls’ Network and recently helped to launch its Salford division. The Girls’ Network empowers young females from the least advantaged communities to be ambitious and reach their aspirations by matching with a positive female mentor. Morson International plans to replicate the success of the award-winning mentoring programme and launch new divisions in key commercial areas, such as the South West, to help improve female representation and build a diverse pipeline of talent for major projects, like Hinkley Point C.

Scholarship support

The Gerry Mason Engineering Excellence Scholarship, set up by the late Morson Group founder, recently pledged a further 15 fully-funded engineering scholarships with Salford University as part of its ongoing commitment to develop the next generation of engineers. Worth £9,000, the scholarships enable local young people, who would otherwise be deterred from university by the associated costs, to pursue an engineering degree.

Yet since launching in 2015, the Gerry Mason Engineering Excellence Scholarship is yet to attract a female applicant, something the Morson Group and Salford University is eager to change by explaining that a picture of success would one day be an ‘all female cohort’.

Extending the focus on diversity and inclusion activity beyond gender is another way to address the engineering skills shortage. According to a Forbes global survey, 85 per cent of leaders agree that a diverse and inclusive workforce is crucial to encouraging different perspectives and ideas that drive innovation.

Diverse recruitment techniques

Adrian continues: “Diversity is so important and brings huge benefits to the learning environment, organisations and projects, and with inclusivity at the core will outperform their peers. Techniques like unconscious bias training and blind auditioning really make a difference and help to build more diverse teams.”

Reducing unconscious bias changes the way roles are advertised to improve diversity and attract new talent. Job listings provide a first impression of a company’s culture and subtle wording choices can have a strong impact on the applicant pool. Language like ‘strong and confident’, for example, is male-orientated whilst ‘collaborative and cooperative’ is more with female focussed.

Adrian continues: “It’s working to strike a balance with the language used and replace gendered words with something more neutral. As a global business that supplies talent around the world, we also have to consider any terms that might only be recognised in certain countries, like ‘black, Asian and minority ethnic’, which is only used in the UK.”

Blind auditioning also works to challenge traditional beliefs amongst staff and clients. It’s easy for bias to unconsciously trickle into the recruitment process. Removing demographic characteristics, however, such as name, gender and age, can help recruiters and clients to focus on a candidate’s qualifications and talents.

As we look ahead to the future of engineering and Adrian predicts that technology, particularly IT and cyber, will become some of the most in-demand skills within the sector. Traditionally, technology professionals and engineers rarely applied for the same roles. Now, the use of technology has become a requirement across all engineering disciplines and has brought a greater synergy in the role specifications for each.

Adrian continues: “This competition for skills has led to a more person-centred focus, with emphasis on selecting the right attributes for the role and the company culture. We’re seeing greater flexibility in the mandatory skills profile stipulated on job specifications, which is good news for candidates as it provides career fluidity and opens up opportunities to take a new direction, add new skills and widen the choice of industries, locations and roles.”

With 85 per cent of the jobs that will exist in 2030 having not yet been invented, what is certain is that closing the skills gap is a long-term challenge and that businesses, educators and the government must work together to deliver real change.