Problems Ahead for Engineering in the United Kingdom Eight Months After Brexit

Talent shortage and research funding are among the top issues

17 March 2017

The United Kingdom has two years of negotiations ahead of it before it exits  the European Union, but that won’t be anywhere near enough time to meet the increased demand for engineers. The nation is currently dependent on engineers from the EU, and any post-Brexit tightening of immigration policy would have a damaging effect on the supply of much-needed tech skills. That’s according to a report published in February by the industry group EngineeringUK.

EngineeringUK 2017: The State of Engineering” highlights a number of potential vulnerabilities to the health of U.K. engineering as the nation prepares to split from the EU—a move popularly known as Brexit. The report points to a shortfall of at least 20,000 graduate engineers annually in the U.K. It also says that some of the nation’s engineering universities are already struggling to recruit enough professors to fill engineering faculty positions.

INWARD MIGRATION

The report expresses concern about perceptions that the U.K. is no longer an open and welcoming place to study and work. It emphasizes that attracting and retaining talent from the EU and beyond is a vital part of post-Brexit policies. Half the roles on a so-called Home Office shortage occupation list—positions that cannot be filled domestically—are either in engineering sectors or allied professions, according to the report. The Royal Academy of Engineering compiled the list, and in October published the results of its consultations with more than 400 businesses and individuals.

The Institute of Engineering and Technology, a trade group, published statistics last year that show 17 percent of those employed as engineers in the U.K. are from the EU. A four-page briefing note published in November by the European Centre for the Development of Vocational Training points out there is a shortage of professional and associate professional occupations across the EU, topped by engineers and IT specialists. The EngineeringUK report says the list signals a reliance on the inward migration of engineers.

In my interview with IEEE Life Senior Member Charles W. Turner, professor emeritus of electrical engineering at King’s College in London, he said, “There is an ongoing shortage of engineers with the right qualifications, and the U.K. cannot afford to make it more difficult to recruit non-U.K. engineers.”

EngineeringUK makes several recommendations for filling the thousands of open engineering slots across the nation, most of which have been proposed in previous reports and studies. They include improving the technical skill sets of working engineers and improving the retention rate of existing engineering staffs.

Negotiations across a broad range of issues and policies between the U.K. and the EU may actually require two years, Turner says, “especially with respect to the migration of skilled workers.”

INTERNATIONAL RESEARCH

Another concern is that postgraduate courses and research programs in engineering are highly dependent on international students for their viability. “It is accepted,” the report says, “that the capacity and talent in the research base are much healthier with free mobility of researchers, especially into the U.K.”

There are also growing concerns about the nation’s future access to EU funding, such as Horizon 2020. Believed to be the biggest EU research program ever, Horizon 2020 is a seven-year program that started in 2014 and is supported by government, including the EU’s European Parliament and private organizations. Although the U.K. has received some assurances that it would continue to receive funding beyond its departure from the EU for ongoing projects, the report says, “There remain fears for the longer term in relation to the U.K.’s participation in collaborative research, of which the EU is a prime funder.”

Turner says much depends on how well the transition process is managed. “I believe that the biggest challenge will be how well we attract investment from Asia and North America,” he says. “Many international programs are not directly EU-funded, such as the European Organization for Nuclear Research and the European Space Agency.”

Also, some non-EU countries, including Israel, are allowed to participate in EU research programs. “Theoretically, in the future, the U.K. should retain research funds that are currently paid to [EU-based] Brussels,” Turner says.

Learn More