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New £10m fund launched to help UK businesses plug engineering skills gap

Paystream News

Kerry Hull

Monday 24th Nov, 2014

Britain's small businesses are to be given a helping hand in developing the engineering skills of their staff thanks to a new government initiative.

After several years of trying to keep the costs down amid ongoing economic uncertainty, many businesses right across the UK are now looking to expand again, with a significant proportion keen to make use of the latest technology in order to drive growth.

At the same time, however, firms of all sizes are currently struggling to grow as they simply lack employees boasting specialist engineering skills.

Indeed, a recent study carried out by food industry giant Nestle found that Britain is currently in the midst of a 'skills crisis', with businesses working in the engineering sector particularly struggling to find and recruit talented individuals.

Similarly, and perhaps more pertinently, a recent poll carried out by the manufacturers' organisation EEF found that four in five UK firms have experienced recruitment problems purely because the quality of candidates going for their openings has often not been up to scratch.

Skills gap only likely to get wider as older specialists retire

Moreover, the situation is expected to get worse before it gets any better. For starters, the number of young people studying maths and core science subjects is insufficient to meet future demand for skilled workers.

Furthermore, businesses right across Europe are facing the problem of how to replace an ageing workforce, with millions of specialist workers due to retire in the next few years.

For instance, South West Water recently revealed that 40 per cent of its existing operational workforce is due to retire in the next decade, leaving a huge skills gap that needs to be filled.

In order to address this looming problem, the government has taken the proactive step of launching a new fund of £10 million, with the money to be made available to small companies in order to help them both fill the skills gap of today, while also preparing for the future.

This money is on top of the £20 million already pledged to help firms of all sizes develop projects geared towards boosting the engineering careers of their employees, with a particular emphasis on getting more women trained in engineering and other specialist technical skills.

New funding will help inject new life into UK economy, Cable says

Launching the fund, business secretary Vince Cable warned that the current skills shortage has the potential to 'cripple' the UK economy if immediate action is not taken.

"A strong British engineering sector lies at the heart of sustainable economic recovery," he explained.

"That's why we have joined forces with industry to secure the pipeline of talented and skilled engineers the UK industry needs."

The move, which forms part of the larger Tomorrow's Engineers drive, has been widely welcomed by employers, many of them determined to bring on board and invest in new talent.

For instance, South West Water has stated that the extra funding it is set to receive will help it develop "a new generation of technical staff", opening up exciting career opportunities for both existing staff and future recruits.

But will the initiative solve the underlying problems facing UK industry?

The government's actions have also prompted some criticisms, particularly in regard to how they will help firms grow in the long run rather than simply survive in the short term.

One industry leader who has expressed some reservations about this latest funding initiative is Michael Bennett, managing director of the Rethink Group.

Speaking to Recruiter magazine, he warned that, while certainly encouraging and a clear sign that the government is finally acting to close the skills gap, the Tomorrow's Engineers programme "is not addressing the root cause of the problem".

Indeed, he added: "Providing funding to train the existing workforce, or those soon entering it, will only go so far in overcoming the barrier."

Therefore, the government is being urged to do even more to encourage young people, in particular young girls, to consider a career in science or engineering at an early age, and especially at a point in their education when they have yet to choose which path they want to take.

But it's the short-term benefits that most employers are embracing. This new round of funding should help smaller businesses in particular hire contractors with specialist skills rather than having to rely on unskilled school leavers or even graduates.

Such new recruits will not only fill the immediate gap being caused by a lack of suitably-qualified young candidates, but they will also fill the gap being created as employers in their late 50s and early 60s quit the working world for good.

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