For details on how to contact our editorial and commercial departments, click here
Engineering a future
10:27am Tuesday 27th August 2013 in News
Professor David Toll, professor of engineering at Durham University and chairman of the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) North East, argues that we need to step up our efforts to produce more qualified engineers
IS the UK educating enough engineers?
Qualified engineers are needed to undertake vital tasks like building roads, railways, hospitals, schools, water supply, sewerage schemes and flood defences.
They create new, and sometimes controversial, sources of energy such as wind turbines while also maintaining existing power stations.
Essentially, they build civilisations.
The Government has recently announced that it will spend an extra £3bn a year to fund infrastructure projects, hoping to boost economic growth.
This is much needed, but is it enough? Well, no. The Institution of Civil Engineers’ (ICE) State of the Nation Report on Infrastructure in 2010 warned that, as we come out of recession, we may not have the capacity and skills needed to deliver and operate our infrastructure.
This view is supported by the Royal Academy of Engineering, which estimates that by 2020 the UK will need 830,000 science, engineering and technology graduate professionals and 450,000 technicians.
Engineering alone needs 80 per cent of these graduates. That’s about 660,000 people. In the UK, we are currently educating 22,000 graduates and 49,000 apprentices in engineering and technology each year.
This is not enough. We need to increase the number of engineers graduating by at least 50 per cent.
In some areas we need to increase by up to four times to meet future shortages.
The obvious action is to increase the number of university places for engineering students.
However, engineers are highly sought after and not just by engineering companies.
Some 26 per cent of graduate engineers work in other sectors. Engineering graduates are highly educated, numerate and tech-savvy.
They are actively recruited, for example, by the finance and banking sectors, attracted by higher salaries, and who can blame them?
All of this means that it is a good time to be studying engineering.
Over the next decade we can expect to see a shortage of qualified professional engineers, so those who do become engineers will enjoy exceptional opportunities for rapid career progression.
It seems certain that salaries will increase and become even more competitive as the skill shortage really starts to bite.
But we need to start now. Educating more engineers to fill the anticipated shortfall will take time.
A professional qualification in engineering requires more than the academic underpinning, such as NVQs, BEng or MEng degree. Professional qualifications are awarded as a result of experience and training after completion of academic studies.
This can take five or more years to achieve, after the three or four years of initial academic study.
So, achieving professional engineering status to the highest level can take ten years, and often more.
Academic study for a degree in engineering is rightly regarded as highly competitive. Places for study at the top universities are few and far between and hence difficult to secure, and then the hard work begins.
Engineering is seen as one of the more challenging degree courses.
Students spend more time in lectures, in labs and design projects than students studying other subjects.
At Durham University, engineering students spend 40 to 50 per cent of their time in scheduled activities, compared with students studying sciences, for example chemistry and physics, who spend 25 to 30 per cent in classes, and arts or social sciences, for whom it is15 to 20 per cent.
Engineering students have to be prepared to be professionals from the outset of their course, working hard to tackle their studies, but the job satisfaction and rewards are high.
There are plenty of jobs and plenty of choice. Civil, mechanical, electrical, electronic, environmental, bio-mechanical and chemical engineering are just some of the many branches of engineering.
An engineering education is aimed at providing the essential skills needed for operating within the profession.
But should an engineering education only focus on skills? I recently hosted a round-table discussion in Durham Castle featuring the President of the ICE, Professor Barry Clarke.
In the audience were students, graduates and employers. Higher education institutions always feel under pressure to produce graduates “ready for the workplace”.
However, the strong sense from the discussion, including from employers, was that an undergraduate education should primarily focus on fundamental theory providing a deep understanding of engineering principles.
This is because today’s “skills” may well change over their 40 yearplus careers.
When young people choose engineering, they will be entering a career in which, over time, they will see many changes.
Engineers must be flexible, adaptable, willing and able to accept the challenges that change presents.
They need to innovate and take responsibility for major projects with a human dimension.
Of course, tomorrow’s engineers will also need to understand budgets, finance and management as well as engineering fundamentals.
Some words of encouragement for those considering engineering as a future. The North-East has some of the country’s, even the world’s, best universities and engineering companies.
Think carefully about A-level subjects.
Maths and physics are key and universities will advise on entry requirements.
Think about a holiday job with a local engineering company. It has been a long time since the engineering profession was able to offer such a promising future to those eager to show initiative, who welcome a challenge and are ready to work hard.
But we need to start now to be ready for 2020.
Comments are closed on this article.