MPs meet with IChemE to discuss how to avoid green skills crisis

Article by Adam Duckett

Calls for changes to education and the need to raise awareness of chemical engineering in parliament

ENGINEERS called on UK lawmakers to help fix a looming skills crisis that threatens to derail net zero ambitions during a meeting hosted by IChemE at parliament.

The roundtable discussion on “unlocking the workforce for the green transition” brought together parliamentarians from the Conservative, Labour, and Liberal Democrat parties, leaders of the UK’s engineering skills and training bodies, as well as experts in just transition and clean energy policy.

IChemE president Nigel Hirst opened the discussion with a stark reality check: that a shortfall in engineering talent unless overcome will prevent the UK from achieving its climate targets.

“Irrespective of whatever money is put on the table or whatever ambitions are set, if we haven’t got enough engineers, then it just won’t happen,” Hirst said.

The figures are concerning. EngineeringUK has warned the country is sleepwalking into a net zero skills crisis with tens of thousands of new engineers needed each year; and recently published an investigation into the dramatic decline in engineering and manufacturing apprenticeships.

Too many taskforces

IChemE hosted the meeting under Chatham House Rules to enable attendees to talk freely without attribution. One skills expert said the government needs to get better at understanding future workforce needs and use that information to reform education so it can help meet coming demands. They added that there are too many government-involved skills taskforces operating without coordination on sectors including nuclear and transport. Given they will be drawing on the same engineering talent pool and individuals will move between the sectors, a joined-up approach would be more effective.

There were also warnings that a lack of industrial placements is negatively affecting those seeking technical qualifications through the T Level route.

“Some of [the students] are unable to attain qualification because they don’t have the industrial placements,” one attendee said, though they can’t be sure of how many because the Department for Education won’t release the data.

“We estimate that about 30,000 to 40,000 more industrial placements [each lasting nine weeks] are needed per year for the engineering, manufacturing, digital design, and construction T Levels.”

Another skills expert replied that the work placement element of T Levels is “completely broken”. “There are two simple options: either simulate the work placement…or remove it altogether.”

Hirst said the UK “needs a national rationalisation of training and apprenticeship schemes”.

Communication and inspiration

A common point of agreement was the need to do more to inspire young people to study STEM subjects and to improve public awareness of engineering.

An MP who said he had not been aware of chemical engineering until recently now understood that the discipline influences everything around us and that its profile needs to be raised in parliament. Another MP said he had witnessed how chemical engineers are revitalising the mining industry in his region. Process plants are being built to extract and clean water from disused mines so that they can again produce minerals that are now crucial to cleantech and net zero.

One speaker referenced a study that found people were put off from studying science because they believed it restricted their career options rather than widening them.

“You’ve got to get the communication of the opportunity right, because if we don’t get that right we will alienate people. We’ll not encourage them to be part of an inclusive industry of the future.”

IChemE has recently launched its own student outreach programme called DiscoverChemEng and has created resources that members can use when volunteering in schools.

An early careers chemical engineer suggested that IChemE could adapt its chartership requirements to recognise engineers who volunteer for schools outreach. This would boost the number of chemical engineers who can inspire children about engineering careers.

“There are obviously a lot of people early in their careers set on getting chartered. That [change] would create a volunteer base that would very happily choose to go and do that [outreach] for their own chartership.”

Another engineer who volunteers as an Enterprise Advisor recommended that IChemE supports members to do the same, noting it would help bolster engineering careers advice in schools and help schools connect with industry.

“There’s nothing like an engineer talking about their passion for engineering,” Hirst said.

This article is adapted from an earlier online version.

Article by Adam Duckett

Editor, The Chemical Engineer

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