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How Will the COVID-19 Pandemic Affect the UK Skills Gap?

Sarah Venning
two engineering students work on robotics project, skills gap, covid

There seems to be few areas that remain unaffected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Engineering & manufacturing has certainly faced more than its fair share of challenges this year, from the effects of two national lockdowns through to producing sufficient ventilators to meet demand. However, another COVID-related issue could be on the horizon for the UK's engineering industry in the form of the ever-widening skills gap.

It's safe to say that the events of this year will have repercussions for emerging engineering talent. Tightened recruitment budgets compounded by a pause in education will certainly come home to roost, but just how will this affect the skills gap overall?

A Year of Twists and Turns:

Although these issues are not exclusive to the engineering industry, it could well have a bigger impact in this sector due to the existing shortage of skilled engineers.

2020 has been a year of navigating the unexpected, most of which seemed completely infeasible just twelve months ago. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the UK's shorelines early in the year, most of us were completely unprepared for the devastating impact this would have on all areas of our lives. The engineering & manufacturing industries faced a unique set of problems; since most staff were unable to work from home and manufacturing purchasing underwent a dramatic downturn, many employers were left with no other option than to furlough their staff until the worst was over.

Schools, colleges and universities also shut, meaning that students were unable to continue their education or sit exams. These factors ultimately led to a pause in progression for all engineering students, following both vocational and academic paths. Although these issues are not exclusive to the engineering industry, it could well have a bigger impact in this sector due to the existing shortage of skilled engineers, with many areas of engineering having graced the UK Shortage Occupation List for many years prior to the pandemic.

READ: Brexit & The Skills Gap - A Perfect Storm For UK Manufacturing?

Skills Gap 2020:

The UK Shortage Occupation List specifies that any type of engineering falls under the umbrella of the national shortage.

The UK Shortage Occupation List, which was last updated on 5th October 2020 at the time of this article going to print, includes a host of STEM-related skills which the UK desperately requires for the health of its national industry. From electrical/electronic engineering, through to civil engineering, design & development engineering and production engineering, these types of careers dominate the list. In fact, the UK Shortage Occupation List specifies that any type of engineering falls under the umbrella of the national shortage, illustrating the extent of the problem that the UK currently faces.

In the last few years, the UK government has taken steps to entice young people into considering an engineering-related career. Programmes such as Tomorrow's Engineers Week aim to get school-aged children excited about the possibilities of engineering; this proactive approach could be the answer to closing - or at least narrowing - the gap, though the reach of such programmes will undoubtedly be hampered by the events of this year. Tomorrow's Engineers Week 2020, which ran from the 2nd to the 6th November, was forced to take a digital approach, which meant that the programme lost some of its hands-on interactivity as a result.

Although there are larger problems facing not only the UK, but the world at large, the skills gap issue is unlikely to disappear without external intervention. It's great that this is being recognised by those in higher authority and also extremely positive that Tomorrow's Engineers Week was still able to take place; however, this year's offering may have lacked punch through circumstance alone.

READ: Tomorrow's Engineers Week - Why We Need To Inspire Younger Generations

Vocational Bottlenecks:

The number of people entering apprenticeships halved during the first lockdown.

Although there are many routes into engineering as a career, apprenticeships continue to be the favoured pathway. However, like regular employment, these sorts of opportunities tend to diminish in line with an economic downturn, as less and less employers find themselves in a position to be able to offer apprenticeships financially. Many engineering businesses have had to strip back their expenditure to a bare minimum in order to stay afloat, meaning that there is likely to become a scarcity of opportunities available for the budding engineers we so desperately need.

It would be a tragedy if our industry had to turn away those who are actively seeking an engineering career, but under the current conditions, this is looking more and more likely. Digital educational tools provider TES recently conducted a survey amongst employers who took on apprentices during 2019, three-quarters of whom were planning to reduce or cut apprenticeships altogether in light of the pandemic. Their surveys also showed that the number of people entering apprenticeships halved during the first lockdown - a worrying statistic as we negotiate the second and reluctantly brace for a third.

READ: Revolutionising the Manufacturing Environment For Future Generations

How Will This Affect the UK Skills Gap?

These changes will inevitably have an impact on the breadth of the UK's engineering industry, although the extent will largely be dictated by the duration of the pandemic and any steps taken by the UK government to make apprenticeships more viable for employers. It remains to be seen whether or not these steps will come into fruition or what they will be, but without intervention, the effects on the UK skills gap could be devastating.

In the meantime, it's important that we continue to acknowledge the UK skills gap and do everything within our power to ensure that we continue to close it. After all, this issue predates the pandemic and will only be exacerbated by the disruption of multiple lockdowns, meaning that it's likely here to stay for the foreseeable future.

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About Sarah Venning

Sarah is a sales & marketing content writer, with eight years of experience within the engineering & manufacturing industry.  Working both at Qimtek and on a freelance basis, she can usually be found hammering away at a keyboard or with her head in a pile of engineering drawings. 

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