Like many manufacturing industries, the aerospace and defence sector faces an engineering skills gap that requires a co-ordinated approach to tackle it

The aerospace, defence and security sector (ADS) has had a lot to celebrate in recent years – it’s a successful, growing area, with a turnover of £79 billion in 2019, £46 billion of which comes from exports, while companies in the sector directly provide around 374,000 jobs. This growth is fuelled by innovation as the UK helps to lead the way with the latest technology, materials and manufacturing processes.

However, this success is exacerbating a problem facing ADS companies (and other high-value manufacturing sectors) – a severe skills gap. In 2018, EngineeringUK reported a shortage of 203,000 people with Level 3+ engineering skills every year and that 46% of engineering employees faced difficulties with recruitment. The situation in 2021 remains similar, with the UK government including seven categories of engineers on its shortage occupation list.

Without the right talent there is a risk that innovation and growth in the sector may slow down. According to Stephanie Fernandes, Principle Policy Adviser for Education and Innovation for the IET, this is something that must not be allowed to happen. “Engineering plays a central role in the UK’s economy, contributing a huge amount of revenue while also providing jobs,” she says. “As we have moved into the digital age, innovation is even more important – it’s essential that UK companies are at the cutting edge of technology so that we continue to be seen as one of the best places for high-value engineering.”

"STEM skills go hand in hand with innovation – they are vital when it comes to adapting to the changing nature of manufacturing in the digital age" Stephanie Fernandes, Principle Policy Adviser for Education and Innovation, IET

The answer, Fernandes believes, lies in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) education. “STEM skills go hand in hand with innovation – these skills are vital when it comes to adapting to the changing nature of manufacturing and engineering in the digital age,” she explains. “If the UK is to remain competitive then we need more young people equipped with STEM skills so that they can adapt to a rapidly changing landscape.

“We’ve found through our own research that it’s problem-solving and practical skills that young people really lack at the moment,” she adds. “This is likely to be exacerbated following Brexit if access to talent from the EU starts to dry up.”

Attracting STEM talent
Brendan Free, Industry Sector Manager at RS Components, agrees. “It’s vital that young people are encouraged into STEM-related subjects, and then companies in the aerospace and defence sector need to work hard to get the best of that talent to work for them,” he says. “Part of the answer is apprenticeships – we’ve seen thousands of programmes start up around the industry in recent years, but it’s also about going out and getting involved with young people, engaging them in STEM subjects and getting them enthusiastic about a potential career as an engineer.”

It’s an area that RS Components has been heavily involved with in recent years through a number of initiatives, and Free feels the company has a lot to offer. “I think we’re uniquely placed to help customers, both to innovate now and to promote STEM to young people,” he says. “At RS we can leverage both our own technical capabilities and also tap into our 2,500 suppliers – it gives us a very good overview of what is happening in terms of innovation.

“As an example, we partnered with QinetiQ on a joint venture to promote technology in a school in Malvern,” adds Free. “We helped kit out the school’s new engineering lab including providing 20 Raspberry Pi computer systems.”

Building for the future
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, other initiatives from RS Components have included taking the RS Live Truck – a 35-tonne vehicle loaded with innovative engineering technology for people to try out – to the Farnborough Air Show. “It’s a great way of engaging with young people who want to come on board and play with the gadgets,” says Free. “But it also starts to sow the seeds about STEM being fun and it being a route into working with aircraft for a living.”

RS Components is also supporting innovation through its DesignSpark offering – an RS website that provides free software and discussion forums for the engineering community. “DesignSpark is a great resource,” says Free. “It’s all about promoting innovation by giving engineers the tools they need to be creative, then letting them get on with it. I’ve heard from lots of engineers in R&D departments at our customers that the software is just what they need to bring new ideas to life, which is exactly what we’re aiming to achieve.

"Young people must be encouraged into STEM-related subjects, and then aerospace and defence companies need to work hard to get that talent to work for them" Brendan Free, Industry Sector Manager, RS Components

“At RS, we look for any opportunity to promote science, technology, engineer and maths,” he adds. “We believe that it’s our role to do this because we want to be the supplier of choice for engineers and it’s important to play a part in driving interest in engineering, which will help our customers in the aerospace and defence industry.”

The IET is firmly behind any attempts to help promote both innovation and STEM skills. “The only way to solve this skills shortage is going to be to embed science, maths and engineering right the way through the curriculum, from primary level through to secondary school,” says Fernandes. “This needs to be backed up by private companies, higher education and other organisations.

“The IET also wants to see more organisations offering work experience to young people to help them make the connection between the subjects they study in school, and the practical application and potentially exciting jobs they can get if they go down the STEM route.”