By Sarah Weckerling
A grim prognosis regarding the future of Welsh engineering has been released this week, confirming that Wales must face around 2,500 more engineers by 2020, or face falling behind internationally.
This anticipated shortage of engineers is currently being tackled by a number of initiatives that seek to interest more young people in scientific, technological, engineering-related and mathematical subjects of study, usually summarised under the acronym STEM. Organisations such as STEM Cymru, which can be seen as a sort of subsidiary of the EESW, the Engineering Education System Wales, are hard at work to promote engineering jobs and help young people gain easier access to them.
Wyn Boucher is the coordinator for one of STEM’s flagship projects, in which the name says it all: Girls into Engineering.
Explaining how they plan to avoid the worst-case-scenario of 2,500 missing engineers, Mr. Boucher said: “STEM Cymru has been working in Wales now for 25 years. Initially we just did project-based work, now we have permanent initiatives running from primary school level to university level, covering all kinds of opportunities” .
“Every year we deal with over 100 companies and over 650 students. Five years ago I was asked about organising Girls into Engineering, which started off as just being about visiting industries and seeing how engineers work,” he added. “Then people started asking: ‘What about the boys?’ Both parents and schools wanted the initiative to run on a bigger scale. Currently, there is already a trend of more girls going for engineering careers, but it is not enough by far.”
Looking beyond the local horizon of Wales and comparing the situation here with the conditions in one of Europe’s most successful engineering nations, Germany, it is perhaps not surprising to see that the mainland faces similar future prospects.
Gabriele Kroge of the Frauenhofer Institute for Industrial Engineering and Organisation commented that, although there has been a short-term high in German engineers being hired and ending up in the right position in recent years.
“We are seeing a huge shortage of engineers coming in the future, the effects of which will be most harmful to our national economy in fifteen years. The strength of German exports will be drastically affected,” Miss Kroge said.
Two main reasons for this phenomenon lie, for both Wales and Germany, in a form of miscommunication in the education sector on the one hand, a demographic problem on the other hand.
Miss Kroge explained the miscommunication in the following way: “Companies are struggling with the promotion of certain job types in the engineering sector. Sometimes students don’t even know what is out there, and the only ones good at communicating that are major companies like Bosch and Daimler.”
Germany’s demographic problem, on the other hand, exactly matches the situation in Wales: “There will simply be not enough young people to feed the industry’s appetite for engineers, even if we have initiatives to get students interested in STEM subjects and to bring in more girls specifically, it will not be enough to prevent a huge shortage”, Miss Kroge said.
In Wales, STEM Cymru’s Senior Administrator Rob Carter pinpointed a similar problem that hits really close to home.
“The problem with Wales is that there is too little industry in general and the country is also too scarcely populated”, he said.
Despite the odds, STEM Cymru appears to be doing everything in its power to catch up. On Monday, an event to promote engineering courses and jobs taking place at Celtic Manor had about 1,500 visitors – it was all about showcasing what Welsh industries have to offer.
The interest is obviously there, but the existing initiatives for engineering may need to run for longer until an adequate assessment can be made.
Barry Sullivan, Admissions Officer at Cardiff University’s Engineering School, said:“I think it is still too soon to judge the success (or lack thereof) of these initiatives. Many of them are aimed at primary school aged children, so it takes several years for these kids to come through the system, and ultimately apply for university. We support several of these schemes in the Cardiff School of Engineering, and host student groups throughout the year. Personally, I am in favour of any initiative that encourages under-represented populations to choose a degree/career in STEM.”