How do we solve the Catch 22 of Skills?

Employers are frustrated that young people emerging from education don’t have the skills they are looking for. Young people emerging from education are keen to work but can’t get jobs because they don’t have the skills employers are looking for. A classic Catch 22 conundrum – how do we fix this?

Last month the IET published a skills survey that was launched at a joint event with Student Energy, who were presenting a report of their own on young people entering the energy transition labour market. The lively debate that took place is available to view. The organisations spoke respectively to employers and students both groups expressing a clear desire for more and better training to help bridge the gap between formal education and employment, and for career progression into new roles or to cover new responsibilities.  

Apprenticeships, graduate programmes, and internships are a great way to receive practical training, but these programmes are only available to a minority, and often those working for larger organisation.

How do we find different ways to bridge this gap? Could accessible online learning be an acceptable alternative that employers would consider? Perhaps young engineers already have the skills, but they are not presenting them in the right way because they don’t know how?

If engineers can’t find a solution to this, I don’t know who can – what are your thoughts?

  • We need an industry that's not fixated on short-term profits, and actually wants to spend money training people for the future.  The public education sector can't provide the specific training that each employer wants.

  • Agree with this sentiment. I suspect the companies saying "young people don't have the skills we are looking for" are the same companies that are relying on young people to self-fund (or take out a student loan) their university education.

    The old saying goes... you get what you pay for. If you're not investing in the future of young professionals, are you entitled to an opinion on the quality of their skills?

  • This is such a multifaceted issue, so I'll be very interested in some of the replies here.

    Aside from Simon Baker's reply/thread, there's another argument here that young engineers in the UK are emerging from education better equipped than UK engineering firms can handle.

    I've had graduate feedback that their company has only demanded of them Excel Spreadsheet skills, & PowerPoint Presentation skills since joining. These are talented young engineers that have spent 3-4 years mastering calculus, control theory, finite element analysis, programming, and other demanding analytical skills only for their employer to critique them on not knowing how to do a VLOOKUP. Are UK companies equipped with the right opportunities for young engineering professionals? 

  • Many many years ago I was offered an apprenticeship with an aircraft manufacturer, no space industry then. If I had accepted I would have been expected to go on day release for qualifications up to HND level and be expected to work for the company for a long time if not my working life. 

    Recently the son of a friend, my offspring are all female and have no interest in engineering despite my best efforts, was offered an apprenticeship with the now aerospace company.  He asked what qualifications he would be expected to study for and get. He was told "none" they would teach him everything that was needed to do the job! He declined and accepted an apprenticeship with a water company where he was expected to get qualifications. 

    Having completed his apprenticeship and got qualifications he  left the water company, partly due to the dangerous incompetence of his managers, and gained a well paid job with a smaller company that does not do apprenticeships!

    I suspect that  part of the problem is if good apprenticeships are offered they cost companies a lot of money and the qualified apprentices  then leave for better paid jobs. The poor low cost apprenticeships do not appeal to those who have the potential skills to do much better.

    I saw an apprenticeship for a barista being offered. A temporary job one of my daughters mastered the basics of  after a few hours training. 

    In addition the low respect in the country for engineers and expectation of low pay when compared to lawyers, accountants etc means that any engineering type job does not attract the volume of suitable applicants. Along with the expectation that engineers get their hands dirty. Not helped by the throwaway society where fixing things is not done. Usually because it is almost impossible as many items are designed as non maintainable and even if you know what is wrong the spares are not available, assuming you do not have to destroy the item to fit the spare. So youngsters do not get the opportunity to practice breaking and fixing things or learn the effects of CRT High Tension voltage on the human body :) 

    I have a little GoPro camera and have learnt that to replace the failing rechargeable  battery I would need to destroy the camera! I have seen a video of how to disassemble one without actually completely destroying it but it did not cover how to reassemble the disassembled bits:(

    Unfortunately I can not suggest any practical cost effective solutions.

  • As an educator at a UK-based university, I firmly believe that fostering stronger collaboration between our educational institution and employers is pivotal for tailoring our curricula to meet the specific needs of the industry. One approach that I find effective is the establishment of advisory boards, comprised of industry experts. These boards should have the ability to shape curriculum design, ensuring that students are equipped with technical skills that are not only current but also directly applicable to their future careers. 

    Educators should also take the initiative to reach out and incorporate industrial practices into their lectures. In my lectures, I have always strived to incorporate recent practices from industry and the research community, not solely relying on textbooks. We should also emphasise on problem solving and project-based learning, where students are given design exercises to simulate real-world working environment within the university.  

  • Another feeling I have about this, which I think you allude to Alex, is that we are suffering from the loss of big employers in the UK across all engineering sectors (including e.g. building trades). Training staff is a big overhead in the requirement to have supporting staff, and the move from big employers to SMEs (which was well on the way when I started my career in the late 1970s) makes it very challenging for the most well meaning employer to take trainees / apprentices on (whether school leavers or graduates).

    When I was involved in a local manufacturers' group we talked about collaborating so that apprentices / trainees could rotate around different companies in their training, just as they would rotate around different departments in "big company" schemes. Nothing (as far as I know) ever came of it, because it hit the brick wall of who was actually going to administer this. Probably the only organisations that could are training providers, i.e. FE/HE institutions, but they don't usually have the infrastructure to do so. However if this could be made to work it could be really good, not just because it would allow training to take place with minimal risk / overhead to each individual employer, but also because it would mean the trainee would learn that there is more than one way to work by seeing several different organisations' approaches. 

    I have always thought that we lag far, far behind other professions for this, I guess here I'm primarily thinking of post-graduate training. I cannot think of another profession (law, teaching, medicine, accountancy) where you do your degree and that's it - it's up to you to work out what you are supposed to do next. They all have required post graduate training and further qualifications, and so are set up to provide this. Even in the case where, particularly in law or accountancy, the individual employers are quite or very small organisations. What can we learn form these?

    Very good and important point. I'm having various bits of building work done on our house at the moment, and I've been chatting to the various companies we're using about this subject over the last year or so. At present not one of them has a single apprentice / trainee, they all say they'd like to, but they just can't afford it. And they all know they are getting older and their skills are getting lost...

    (Incidentally, I'm delighted to say that the company I work for has had a graduate intake programme this year! And frankly I don't particularly care what skills they come in with as long as they are keen to learn and develop - which they are.) 



  • Given that we keep hearing from employers that the education sector isn't producing graduates with the right skills, do we need to get industry more involved in creating the courses? I assumed that this must already happen, but with every day I age, I suspect I also become more naïve!

  • Some companies do offer apprenticships - for example where I am does, and we have a chap in the lab a few days a week, doing a degree the rest of the week,  who set off (of course) as a net drag on which ever project he was attached to. but he is keen, andwithin a few months can very well be left to get stuff moving on his own and is already an asset.

    But he is the only one doing this sort of thing in the hardware part of the company in many years, and as we all go grey and drop off, there is a lack of replacement of folk who can bias an op-amp or use a network analyser..

    I suspect that other companies too are winding down on things that look to hard or too risky in terms of an immedate reward.

    Of course on any one job, some things can be outsourced abroad to a degree, but not sensitive things, and in the long term that compounds the problem - the other countries get the workforce with experiance at our expense, and we lose the ability to do anything on our own.
    As a nation we suffer from a desire to cheap out on things and the result is
    1) its cheap in the short term
    2) its rubbish
    This is not confined to educating engineers.

    Having worked in Germany, admittedly 20 odd years ago, there is indeed another way - but it too is not perfect.

  • I think smaller organisations in the UK are overwhelmed by the perceived (or real) burden of taking on apprentices which has resulted in a huge amount (over £2bn) of unspent apprenticeship levy being returned to government. If more help could be given to demystify or support companies to take the leap and offer roles to apprentices that would be fantastic. Likewise, the unspent levy could be repurposed to upskill or reskill emerging graduates, or those who are established in the workforce. I agree with you too though Andy - I would rather hire someone with the right attitude and approach who might not have exactly the ideal qualifications, than not. 

  • It does feel like there's a low risk appetite in recruitment generally. We often hear about how expensive the process is and as a hiring manager the pressure is often intense to try and describe in minute detail who and what the ideal candidate would be - to the extent that sometimes I read job descriptions that are pages long and would need someone with superpowers to be able to tick all the boxes.

    Maybe a new system where people who seem like a pretty decent match could be given a more significant trial period - this would give them paid on the job experience which could be logged and used to support their CV and CPD - and employers would have a chance to really see whether they are the right fit for the role. I guess it could be open to exploitation by unscrupulous employers - but then they will always find a way to be unscrupulous!