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

Article by Adam Duckett

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 this week.

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 change 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, not enough coordination

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.

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 likely 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 chemical 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.

Retraining and industrial strategy

A just transition researcher said it was important to recognise the pool of existing workers available to move into new cleaner manufacturing jobs. They include those working in industries that are being forced to adopt sustainable technologies such as the car industry. And also those working in heavy industry whose industries will be lost in the push for net zero and will want to find work in other sectors.

“We see a lot of people working in North Sea oil and gas who want to move to offshore wind. But there are relatively small legislative hurdles stopping them from doing so, like needing to get training passports from one sector to the other and paying twice for the same training. So, it's actually quite small wins, which can support workers in those sectors.

“There are people who are in their 30s and 40s now who are looking at 20 years of uncertainty. How will they be supported?”

Attendees asked the politicians about industrial strategy and the continuity required for businesses to invest in greener industries while the uncertainty of government change hangs over them.

“There does need to be an agreement between the parties to provide that stability so that a business can decide ‘yes it’s worth my while investing [in clean manufacturing]’ and a young person can say ‘yes I’m going to pursue that career path because I can see a long-term future in it’,” an MP said.

He added that despite the differences between the parties there is unlikely to be a lot of difference in the approach to net zero.

Another said that while industrial strategy is working well in some areas of the country, there needs to be greater regional coordination among local authorities, businesses, industry, and universities. A revival of regional development agencies could help, they added.

Engineers in politics

There’s a long-running discussion in the chemical engineering community about the need for more engineers to become politicians. IChemE co-funds the Ashok Kumar Fellowship which funds a placement for a young engineer to work in parliament and prepare a policy briefing for lawmakers.

One MP recommended that STEM teachers should encourage their students to seek work experience in MP constituency offices.

“Parliament should be reflective of the country as a whole,” they said.

Hirst closed the meeting by thanking the attendees for a lively debate and the encouragement shared.

“Irrespective of the party in government, we all want to see resources used wisely, especially human resources…I do think there’s a positive outcome from this [discussion] if we all work together.

“With many IChemE members already working on the frontline of making green energy a reality in a wide range of sectors, we are well-placed to input into these vital topics. Convening these conversations is crucial, both to making our profession’s impact felt more widely, and to emphasise the pivotal role chemical and process engineers have in the transition towards achieving a sustainable world.”

Article by Adam Duckett

Editor, The Chemical Engineer

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