A growing crisis threatens to engulf British businesses because of the slump in the number of manufacturing and engineering graduates coming out of UK universities, the head of the CBI warned yesterday. Richard Lambert, the director general of the CBI, said that major UK companies were already struggling to recruit the engineers they desperately needed and that foreign businesses would no longer want to invest in the UK if they could not rely on finding the skilled workforce they need here.
"About three-quarters of our engineering companies expect a shortfall in recruitment this year," Mr Lambert said. "More companies are having to recruit internationally to fill the gaps but other countries have exactly the same problems and sometimes the quality is not what we are looking for.
"We are not only putting at risk our established businesses in the UK but it also makes us less attractive to international companies looking to invest because they will want to be sure that the skills base is available."
Mr Lambert was speaking at the launch of the E3 Academy, an engineering industry initiative to encourage more students to choose engineering degree courses. The number of engineering students has continued to fall year on year, with a 45 per cent decline in numbers of electrical engineering students between 2001 and 2006.
The problem is compounded by the fact that around 60 per cent of those taking an electrical engineering degree do not subsequently pursue a career in the industry. This decline in the popularity of engineering comes at a time when there has been a general increase in overall student numbers over the past 10 years. Industry and engineering company leaders have warned that this trend is already having a bearing on the UK's ability to compete in the global engineering and manufacturing marketplace.
The E3 Academy was created with support from several leading companies and two universities – Newcastle and Nottingham – to try to reverse the damage.
Students who are accepted as part of the E3 Academy intake at Nottingham or Newcastle will enjoy a substantial support package during their degree and beyond. This includes an annual bursary of £2,500, eight weeks' paid summer vacation training, places on summer schools, reimbursement of tuition fees after graduation – worth up to £9,000 for a three-year course – and employment with one of the partner companies.
Professor Paul Acarnley, manager of the E3 Academy, said: "It is vital for the future of UK industry that we try to reverse the dwindling numbers of young people who are opting to make engineering their chosen career. Leading UK companies are finding it a real challenge to fill engineering positions as the vast majority of students graduating from our universities do so from non-engineering courses. There is a looming skills shortage in a critical area of this nation's overall industrial output.
"If we do not halt the decline in engineering graduates, this country will face a real problem if we are to hold our own on an increasingly competitive global stage. That is how serious the work of the Academy is and why we are fully supported by leading organisations such as the CBI."
Bob Owen, a chartered electrical engineer, from partner company Siemens Automation & Drives, said: "We are short of tens of thousands of engineers in our industry. There are just not enough young people doing maths and science at school. Of those who do, not enough go on to do an engineering degree at university. Then up to 60 per cent of these graduates with electrical or electronic engineering degrees do not go into the industry. They have fantastically transferable skills and are sought after in other careers."
The courses available through the E3 Academy will allow students to study electrical engineering, control and automation in many key UK industry sectors.
The start-up E3 Academy company partners are industry leaders Siemens Automation & Drives, Control Techniques, Parker SSD, Cummins Generator Technologies, GE Aviation and Converteam.