Talent acquisition challenges in the engineering sector

4 min

With a shrinking talent pool and the loss of specific skills as experienced engineers retire, it’s no secret that the world is suffering from a growing STEM skills gap. The Royal Academy of Engineering suggests 6 million engineers are needed in the UK alone, with targets remaining unmet due to a 59,000-annual shortfall.

A 2020 report currently suggests the shortage is vast, and it’s putting the safety of workers at risk. At Armstrong Craven, we spoke to Ali Gilani, Babcock’s Resourcing & People Analytics Director for the Marine and Nuclear sectors, to get a better understanding of the talent acquisition issues facing the industry.

What are the issues?

As Ali walked us through the problems causing the talent shortage, he outlined three key areas which had a significant impact: geography, demographic, and a lack of engagement from younger generations.

Enticing people to remote locations

When it comes to engineering sectors such as marine or nuclear, location is critical. Identifying how geography presents challenges for Babcock, Ali said:

“Our large operations are in Plymouth, Rosyth, and Clyde. None of those is an epicentre for engineering in the country, but they are where we can do shipbuilding or deep-water refits of submarines. In Clyde’s  case, it’s where the nuclear subs warheads are housed. So, there are specific sites in the country where this work has to be done.”

However, this issue isn’t unique to Babcock; it’s an industry-wide problem. BAE have similar difficulties building submarines, as they try to attract talent to locations such as Barrow-in-Furness. Even Portsmouth, which is well known for its naval capability, can’t claim to be an engineering epicentre. Still, it’s where people need to be located to service the UK’s fleet.

Fortunately, this mainly applies to hands-on engineers, with design engineers being able to work around the geography issue. When discussing how Babcock can support engineers who don’t always need to be on-site Ali commented:

“You don’t necessarily need people to be on-site 24/7. From a design perspective, we could have those people working remotely in locations where there is a higher concentration of talent. However, when you’re looking at primary engineering such as welders, fitters, electricians they need to be doing those activities on the ship. There’s no point to them working from home.”

An ageing demographic

This issue affects the entirety of the engineering sector with the UK’s average age for a primary engineer currently around 56] . While this means the talent pool has plenty of experience, it also shows an ageing workforce soon to be retiring.

An ageing demographic can also create another geographic problem as candidates around this age group are less willing to relocate to new areas. However, for some employers, the average age can have some benefits.

“If you do have someone who is an engineer in their late 50s working for you and they’re working in a place like Plymouth, Rosyth or Clyde, chances are they’re less likely to leave, before they retire .”

With the need for very specific skills higher than many other sectors, engineering companies can often find themselves looking to replace employee attrition with ready-made talent who can hit the ground running. However, with a global skills shortage, the demand is substantially higher than the supply, meaning talent acquisition turns into a bidding war for available engineers.

“You have two options at that point. The first is, you become a higher bidder for that supply, so you manage your supply better. But of course, all you’re doing in some places is driving up prices and cost. The second option you have is to become more self-sufficient and build your own capability. By that, I don’t necessarily mean only graduates and apprentices, one of the significant areas we’re looking at is adult upskilling and career transitions .”

A lack of engagement for Engineering as a Career Choice

The third issue Ali raised was the lack of engagement from young people to go towards engineering as a career choice

“The final problem for the sector is the lack of young people getting into engineering disciplines as a career choice. The Royal Society of Engineering thinks we’re going to be between 10,000 – 30,000 engineers short for the next five to ten years. When it comes to encouraging young people to get into STEM and engineering subjects, we fall way behind developing countries as well as other European countries who put a real emphasis on engineers such as Belgium, France and Germany.”

One of the bigger issues in the UK is the public perception of engineering as a career. Almost everything in the digital age was designed and developed by engineers. However, many don’t hold engineering in the same high regard as they would a doctor or a lawyer. 

Alongside this, the engineering sector is still heavily dominated by white males. Only around 12% of UK engineers are female, and less than 8% come from BAME backgrounds. A large part of this can be attributed to the perception issue, and if STEM subjects were introduced to the younger generation earlier, then this could help to solve the identity crisis.

“If we target students when they’re about to go to university, we’re too late. So, the bulk of our STEM outreach programmes are aimed at the last years of primary and the first three years of secondary school.”

However, even if companies target students at the right time, engineering still needs to be portrayed as a prestigious career. It’s no secret the industry struggles to increase female representation in industrial apprenticeships, but many have found that this may be due to pressures from parents.

“What we find is a lot of times when we’ve spoken to young women about why they haven’t chosen it; they were talked out of it by their parents who felt this was no job for a girl. So, this is endemic across the board; we don’t necessarily see engineering as the doctor, accountant or lawyer type profession, which it is.”



Our conversations with Babcock’s Ali Gilani went into depth on the issues surrounding talent acquisition in the engineering sector and how it can begin the road to recovery. In our next blog, we’ll be covering how to address these three key issues. In the meantime, if you’re looking for talent intelligence services for any sector, then we’re here to help. To get started, contact us today, and we can walk you through our process.

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