Securing the future – why careers provision matters now more than ever

Jul 14, 2022

By Dr Hilary Leevers, Chief Executive of EngineeringUK

I recently watched a TED talk by Rainer Strack, a German consultant at The Boston Consulting Group, and it struck a chord. He explained in very straight forward terms the ever-growing issues major economies around the world have with ensuring that they have the workforce to keep up the levels of productivity that ensure their ongoing wealth and economic health. His predictions don’t make for comfortable reading. While the UK is looking quite healthy when compared to, say, Germany going forward, the outlook is clear – due to changes in the size of the birth cohort over time, we don’t have enough young skilled people coming into the workforce and by 2030 we will have an acute labour shortage across the UK economy.

In the engineering sector, this isn’t really news. Issues of skills shortages have long dominated the debate and if the recent conversations I have had across the transport, sustainability and defence sectors are anything to go by, the situation is certainly not improving. And all of this is set against the backdrop of the global climate and energy crisis, which is demanding urgent solutions and technical and engineering expertise.

So, what can we do about it? Rainer Strack is clear – governments need a clear people strategy with four elements at its heart: 1. Forecasting supply & demand, 2. a strategy on how to attract people, 3. a clear vision of how to educate & upskill people, and 4. clear strategies as to how to retain people. Undoubtedly, all of these things are important and issues that we at EngineeringUK have engaged with in our work. However, let us take a look at point 3 in particular– the need for a clear vision of how to educate & upskill people - and I’d like to make some suggestions as to what such a vision needs to include.

The engineering sector has argued for a workforce strategy that would ensure more young people move into STEM careers, including engineering and technology. In light of this, leading up to the Comprehensive Spending Review, EngineeringUK joined the wider engineering community in calling for a long-term STEM education strategy. This included a call for ‘a guarantee that all pupils receive high quality, up-to-date STEM careers advice and guidance, supported by additional funding of £40 million annually to support careers activities in schools’.

Quality careers provision should be higher priority  

This call for additional investment was made on the back of EngineeringUK’s report Securing the future: careers provision in schools and colleges in England, which was published about a year ago. This report highlighted the urgent need for greater investment in careers provision, particularly STEM careers provision in schools. Careers leaders responding to our 2021 survey highlighted the impact lack of time and funding was having on their ability to give all young people the opportunity to find out more about the kind of jobs available in engineering and technology.

It feels like careers provision is relatively low priority. But without quality careers information and guidance, students will be unable to reap the full benefit of their education by choosing the best pathways, and indeed, careers that will fulfil them and meet the needs of the nation, a notion that is also reflected in more recent report by the Sutton Trust. More specifically, improving young people’s knowledge of the variety of roles available in engineering, and the pay they could expect (which they typically under-estimate) is key to attracting more young people from more diverse backgrounds into engineering and technology.

Research conducted by EngineeringUK clearly shows that young people who know more about what engineers do are more likely to perceive the profession in a positive way and to consider a career in engineering. The research also shows that STEM outreach and education activities are critical in this context. Pupils who had attended one or more STEM careers activity, were 3.5 times more likely than those who hadn’t attended any to know about what people working in engineering did. They were also 3.4 times more likely than those who hadn’t attended a STEM careers activity, to consider a career in engineering.

We could do with a more nuanced understanding of what engagement and careers education activities are most effective with which groups of young people and at which ages. We fully support the recommendation in Teach First’s recent asking that the Department for Education builds the evidence base on ‘What Works’ in careers education by funding randomised controlled trials.

Keeping this in mind, it is clear that any future vision or strategy of how to educate people must include a careers strategy backed up by sufficient funding and workable structures that ensures that all young people, whatever their background, gender or ethnicity, can connect with the careers of the future. And it is important that engineering and technology businesses are linked in closely with such a strategy to ensure that they can secure the workforce that will enable the UK to tackle the challenges that we face, most notably, in meeting net zero. Investing in careers provision, especially around STEM, is indeed about securing the future. It is about securing the wellbeing of our young people, economy and nation.  

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