3rd September 2019The UK engineering skills gap persists despite decades of efforts to turn the tide. In this article, Bryan McLaggan of CTS indentifies the key areas in FM that he believes will finally see lasting progress on an intractable problem.
Why does the UK continue to suffer from a short supply of engineering talent? Why is the gap getting bigger despite efforts to put an end to the problem? The answer to these questions is anything but straightforward, implicating central government, education and the private sector. This complexity has led to decades of uncertainty around how best to proceed, leaving many organisations desperately searching for skilled tradespeople as the gap continues to widen.
The idea of a skills shortage is contentious. There does not appear to be consensus on what exact skills are in short supply, leading some to suggest the problem is not as significant as it is made out to be. There is also a high risk of misinterpretation. An OECD report, for example, shows that the UK job market now contains more graduates than non-graduates, yet employers in Finland, Sweden, and Japan are more likely to find higher levels of numeracy and literacy among their domestic labour supply. The UK’s higher levels of qualification therefore do not necessarily reflect a higher level of basic competency.
Irrespective of the debates around what constitutes a skills shortage and where it is felt most, it is widely acknowledged that UK engineers have been a scarce resource for some time, which has meant inflated salaries and increased spending on extra training for workers who should already be qualified enough for the job they are employed to carry out.
Engineering contributes significantly to the UK economy. Engineering UK, the independent awareness organisation, put the total figure at £1.23 trillion, or 23 per cent of the UK’s entire turnover. It also employs a huge number of people, some 5.7 million or 19 per cent of the entire available labour market. In such economically fraught times, figures like these underline the need for more joined-up thinking and collective discussion from invested parties. Complacency at such a critical juncture will not only see the gap widen but damage a key part of the nation’s economic output.
So, what can be done? Here are some key areas where I think the FM industry can turn the tide.
Acknowledge its impact
FM’s economic contribution to the UK is considerable. Recent analysis from CIBSE found that the sector accounted for as much as 8% of the UK’s GDP, employing some 10% of the country’s workforce. Clearly, these figures and the valuation of the engineering sector cannot be treated independently of one another. The skills gap is, therefore, as much a problem for the FM community as it is for wider engineering sector. This point may appear trite, particularly as ‘hard FM’ formulates one half of what typically falls under the remit of ‘facilities services’ and has itself been crying out for engineering talent for some time. But there is good reason to restate this. A 2018 survey from the CIPD showed that one in four workers said their job does not offer good opportunities to develop their skills, with a separate report from the BIFM (now IWFM) also finding that 27% of businesses felt a shortage of skills would be an impediment to success over the coming years. These figures not only show a disparity between the support young people currently receive and the opportunities businesses provide but also a feeling that genuine change is not within the hands of the FM industry. This needs to change.
Improving staff retention through company culture
A paucity of the right type of labour makes holding on to existing engineering talent more important than ever. Staff retention is a common challenge faced by businesses of all types but none more so than in today’s engineering sector. With sky-high salaries and handsome bonuses on offer to new starters, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to not only maintain a full complement of staff but a full complement of good staff. However, firms that create strong bonds through an inclusive, diverse and supportive working culture will typically hold on to colleagues longer than those that do not. Moreover, as Gallup shows, a strong working culture will also help to attract the top 20 per cent of candidates, further incentivising businesses to take decisive action on this issue. FM is often considered the gatekeeper of great workplaces, it is therefore well placed to consult and help businesses turn this idea into a reality.
Not enough is being done to clarify what a career in engineering actually involves. Research has shown that young people, and even existing workers outside of the industry, are not being given the right literature nor the opportunity to explore the breadth of options available to them. This makes attracting people to the industry infinitely more difficult. Any confusion will dissuade able candidates from exploring further, potentially seeing the sector miss out on the best homegrown talent. The good news is that this is actually a relatively simple problem to address when compared to the other issues that surround the skills gap. Government policy initiatives and corporate engagement within education have put the wheels in motion on this issue, but far more outreach can be done. FM employs hundreds of thousands of engineers and therefore has a responsibility to help clarify to young people what a life in engineering involves, what skills are needed and what can be expected in return.
Research from provider ABM has found that just 14% of children polled believed apprenticeships were a ‘good option’. This demonstrates a serious disconnect between emerging generations of workers and their future employers. FM has a huge opportunity to promote its best technically skilled people and dispel the myth that work-based education is not worthwhile by working closely with schools and colleges. Open days and industry ambassadors may seem outdated in a digital era but it’s clear that ‘real-world’ interaction has a role to play in closing the gap.
While initially well received, many have expressed concern that the apprenticeship levy is too complex and therefore not as effective as it could be. Two years on from its launch numbers continue to reflect poorly – apprenticeship starts fell by 24.1% in 2017/2018 academic year, with that figure not expected to improve over the coming months. Others have pointed out that there is scope for a ‘relabelling’ of existing training to claim back on levy spend. Sadly, despite industry willingness in principle the number of apprentices continues to fall across the board.
This is where convention should be challenged. Clients who have hard FM requirements, and therefore a vested interest in the health of the engineering pipeline, need to be scrutinising prospective partners and asking what they are spending on training and development. It not only makes good business sense for clients to demand more from their supplier but also ensures that the life of a contract will be maintained by the best the industry has to offer.
Bryan McClaggan is MD of CTS https://www.cts-ltd.net
 https://www.theguardian.com/education/2013/ oct/08/england-young- people-league-table-basic- skills-oecd
 https://www.cibsejournal. com/news/engineer-wag- es-up-by-5-on-back-of- skills-shortage/
 Engineering UK 2018 report