The engineering skills gap: where student placements come in

Author : Joshua Piccaver, Loughborough University and Placement Student at Cressall

20 July 2018

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According to IMechE, there is already a 20,000-a-year shortfall in the number of skilled engineers leaving the UK’s education system. Cressall Placement Student, Joshua Piccaver explains what the engineering sector and education system should be doing to inspire new engineers.

In 2017, Engineering UK found that an additional 1.8 million engineers and technically qualified people will be needed by 2025 to fill the ongoing skills shortage in the sector.

The concern that the UK is not training enough engineers is nothing new. The 2016 Hays Global Skills Index revealed that the UK skills shortage has worsened for the fifth consecutive year. The survey found that many university leavers are graduating without the correct technical or vocational knowledge that businesses want and need.

I have been working with Cressall for five years, returning each summer between studying Electrical and Electronics Engineering at Loughborough University. My journey into engineering began at the age of 15 and happened by accident.

At school, I was interested in astronomy and wanted to work in space engineering. When asked by a teacher what I wanted to do after school, they were shocked to hear that I wanted to be an engineer.

My school, like many, did not have the facilities to support my interest in engineering. The closest substitute for me was studying physics and maths.

After hearing of my interest, my teacher approached Cressall to see if they would consider taking me on as part of a placement. They accepted and I have been returning every summer since.

My role at Cressall has evolved over the years, alongside my experience in a range of technical areas. Many friends on my course have gone through university without participating in a placement. Because of this, they have knowledge gaps in areas that require hands-on experience, which leaves them at a disadvantage when they enter the job market.

One of the key skills that is lacking is the ability to communicate: it is just not put into practice during studies. I currently work within Cressall’s R&D division, setting up and running tests on the various resistors that the company manufactures.

Part of this work includes writing reports and presenting data to directors. This is one skill that I have developed while on placement, and one that many graduates will not have.

While universities do encourage students to undergo placements, the importance of this experience is not effectively emphasised. Not only will the experience look good on a CV, but it also teaches the vital skills that universities are unable to.

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For many years, the engineering sector has invested heavily in EU talent. However, with the challenges faced around free movement of labour due to Brexit, the way that the sector is perceived must change.

These changes do not just lie with education providers, of course. Engineering companies, particularly smaller firms, can and should be doing more to attract and support new talent.

Many smaller engineering businesses can only take on a limited number of students on placements, as it would otherwise prove to be counterproductive. However, what they can do is build closer relationships with schools.

Cressall has been taking the lead in Leicester, working with local schools to encourage a new generation of engineers. Without my placement I would not be in the fortunate situation I am in today, graduating university with a guaranteed full time job at the end of it.

As Andrew Keith, engineering director at Cressall adds: “Josh has been a true asset to Cressall since starting in 2012 and we’re delighted that he will be returning to take on a fulltime position after he graduates.

“Hiring young talent has proven difficult for many engineering firms over recent years. One way to tackle this problem is by approaching schools and universities.

“Placements not only provide a student with experience and a business with extra man hours, it also allows the student to relate their theoretical knowledge to real world challenges.

“Education institutes and businesses need to encourage young people to develop more practical skills…

“If businesses and education providers fail to collaborate, the current skills gap will worsen. However, as we are proving, collaboration can enable the British engineering sector to prosper.”

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