More funding for research, a well planned skills strategy, and decisiveness about big infrastructure projects are among the measures that can help UK industry emerge from two turbulent years.
The UK engineering sector has been through a torrid time in the past 18 months. From project cancellations to a growing skills gap, the industry is in need of government support, but the Autumn Budget brought mixed news for the sector. Some skills funding was announced, but critical R&D spending was postponed.
How can the government best support engineering businesses? First, the industry has a pressing skills gap that means it is experiencing the second-highest rate of vacancies behind the IT/computing sector, highlighting how vital it is to address this shortage sooner rather than later.
The announcement of an additional £3.8 billion in funding to improve apprenticeships and T Levels is welcome news because many engineering qualifications fall into vocational education. However, EngineeringUK expressed disappointment that the government didn’t heed its call for an extra £40 million dedicated to STEM education in schools and further education.
As well as a specific skills gap in a range of engineering roles, the Royal Academy of Engineering has called upon the government to invest in a net-zero skills plan. These skills will be necessary if the UK is to hit its net-zero emissions target by 2050, but currently aren’t being routinely taught in engineering, manufacturing or construction courses.
Government can support the engineering sector not only by focusing on funding STEM subjects to increase participation, but also by mandating a net-zero approach to engineering education. It’s well-established that engineering is essential to the UK’s infrastructure, but a 2021 report from the Engineering Professors’ Council [PDF] highlighted its effect on boosting social mobility. The report calls on the government to increase provision of maths and science at GCSE level to open up engineering to more young people.
The decision to postpone an annual £2 billion spend on research and development has been met with criticism from the sector. The Institution of Engineering and Technology commented: “It’s disappointing the government has delayed the important R&D target for two years. If we are to remain globally competitive and achieve our net-zero targets, we must prioritise measures now that encourage businesses to invest in R&D in the UK.”
The commitment to delivering £20 billion of R&D funding by 2025 is positive, but for the UK to remain a leader in R&D on the global stage, funding should be prioritised now. Funding will also be reinstated for the Aerospace Technology Institute, having been frozen previously. This is good news for a buoyant aerospace sector, whose output increased by 45 per cent between 2010 and 2018.
R&D funding is a mixed bag in the sector at present. While we have future promises of £20 billion in funding and specific grants for important subsectors, we also have delays to a lot of this funding at a time when the engineering industry needs support now. The UK is the second-highest-ranking country in the world for R&D output, and in order for us to maintain our high standards, immediate funding is required.
Transport and city infrastructure is one of the biggest opportunities for the engineering sector in the UK. While we’ve seen many commitments for important rail infrastructure upgrades like HS2 and the Integrated Rail Plan in recent years, these projects are all stalling.
In order to maintain momentum in the sector, government-mandated infrastructure plans need to be prioritised and pushed ahead. These projects provide essential work to engineering firms, but they also highlight the importance of the industry to the UK economy.
As well as the recently announced funding for vital local infrastructure projects, the government can further support the engineering sector by providing clear action plans on these large infrastructure projects. Forward-planning and considering future infrastructure requirements, especially in the developing area of smart cities, is also important.
As a sector, engineering has had a turbulent couple of years. Now that lockdowns are no longer shutting down on-site projects, engineering businesses are recovering. But with a number of pressing challenges still in play, including delayed R&D funding and a widening skills gap, the industry would certainly benefit from additional government support.
Steve Ellis is managing director at piston seals specialist FPE Seals.
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