The Skill Shortage Myth
Every other week the press, recruitment agencies, large employers, the government and its advisors get whipped up into a frenzy about the UK’s skill shortages.
I am sure you will have seen the reports or read the headlines and listened to opinions that churn out the same repetitive rubbish.
At times I think to myself, who briefs these people? Where do they get their information? It most certainly isn’t from anyone with working knowledge of how these industries actually operate.
So firstly, does the UK or Europe in fact have a skill shortage? The answer is NO!
Recruitment agencies love to peddle the myth of skill shortages because it creates a need or problem that they can appear to help solve. In reality it is less about a shortage of skill and more about experienced engineers and scientists leaving their industries, and new graduates leaving shortly after entering. In certain sectors such as aviation, evidence would even point to an over supply of engineers, pilots and technicians if anything.
If we do not act and address the real causes of these complex intertwined issues, the existing talent within these sectors will continue to leave in such large numbers and we will have serious problems within the technology, sciences and engineering sectors over the next 3- 5 years.
As an experienced aircraft engineer, I understand all too well the damage being done by unscrupulous and unethical practices within some parts of the recruitment industry. Still, this issue is not unique to the aviation industry and is replicated throughout other sectors.
This editorial focuses specifically on the skill shortage myth but as it is a very broad and complex topic, it encompasses the subject matters of many other articles. Please bear in mind that these other topics will also be discussed in depth in my upcoming editorials.
The free market does not tell porkies
We operate in a free market economy. If there was a severe skill shortage of engineers, pilots, technicians or scientists then market forces would dictate salary increases not decreases as we currently see.
Why is it in Europe that licensed aircraft engineer rates are plummeting to levels never seen before?
If there was a skill shortage then why do pilots in the US earn less than $20,000 a year?
Why do they collect food stamps and often work second jobs in order to survive financially?
The reality is that there is actually an oversupply of engineers, pilots, technicians and scientists – and who does this work in favour of? You guessed it, large companies and recruitment agencies because they can control and reduce their payroll costs.
The free market however, can be distorted by monopolistic practices of large employers and the recruitment industry cohorting together to set salary benchmarks across the sectors and industries. Although I have no hard evidence of this, it would not be unthinkable for this situation to arise as it has done previously in the ICT industry for example, such as when Google and Apple collaborated together to agree remuneration levels payable for certain skill sets.
If the evidence points to one thing but the government, large companies and recruitment agencies are telling us something else, then it’s usually because there’s an agenda.
This agenda could be to de-skill skilled work and create over-supply in order to reduce payroll costs.
Why are graduates and existing experienced engineers/scientists leaving the industries within these sectors?
We have all seen the advertisements used to attract the UK’s future engineers - full of exciting imagery and action shots. The Eurofighter Typhoon speeding past with reheat as a Formula1 car whizzes by. Our new high speed trains from Hitachi with the bloodhound SSG in the back ground braking the land speed record as the sleek lines of an F-35 banks and shoots off into the distance.
Potential engineers get excited and revved up, but the reality is not always so sexy. It takes a lot of time to prove yourself (too long in my opinion) to be allowed to work on projects such as these so it is more likely that they’ll find themselves engineering something rather mundane like a cars central locking mechanism.
I am all for shedding light on the exciting things that engineers create and build but lets manage expectations a little more carefully.
What happened to creativity?
Engineering is a creative process of solving problems. As a nation we no longer value engineers nor do large organisations. They suffocate engineers with bureaucracy and do not allow them enough freedom to find creative solutions to existing problems.
Look at what can be achieved when an engineering teams' creativity is let loose. In November 1945 a small team of engineers and designers answered the call from the US airforce for a new strategic bomber. The 'B52' was designed, built and test flown within 7 months.
In 1941, Ronald Eric Bishop of de Havilland aircraft manufacturers foresaw that furniture makers could play their part in aiding the war effort by designing and manufacturing an aircraft made out of laminated wood. The Mosquito was born and proved to be a very successful aircraft of vital importance during the conflict. Can you imagine that now? There would have to be countless costs and feasibility studies (all due to risk averse industries where nobody dares to be different.)
The elephant in the room: Pay. The perception is that engineers, pilots and scientists are very well paid but the reality is that for the level of skill, experience, responsibility and often-unsociable hours, the pay is mediocre at best. The responsibility is not only confined to recruiters but also employers who have to bear a certain amount of responsibility here too.
As an example, the average salary for a permanent aircraft engineer is:
- A License 18-28k inclusive of shift allowance.
- B1/B2 License with two type ratings 21-42k inclusive of shift allowance. In some very rare cases can reach 70k
- C License 46k inclusive of shift allowance.
Aircraft engineers have total responsibility for ensuring that the aircraft is airworthy, they often work under enormous pressure and are liable by law should anything go wrong with that aircraft. Imagine that, having the responsibility of say 2 turnarounds (flights) of an Airbus 321, how many passengers lives are you responsible for? Around 450.
If you're on a busy line station (airport) and you release 4 aircraft (which is not uncommon) the figure creeps up to just under 1000 lives.If you get into larger aircraft such as a Boeing 777 or even an Airbus 380 you could easily get into 3500 passengers per a 12 hour shift.
When you look at the facts you don’t need to ask why experienced engineers are leaving the industry and why the industry cannot attract new talent. To be quite frank I am surprised we still have the amount of aircraft engineers in the industry, but I am starting to see a worrying (but understandable) trend of more and more friends/colleagues who I have worked alongside leaving the industry.
Cold Hard Facts
Still not convinced that the skill shortage is a myth? Lets look at some figures provided by the higher education statistics agency;
In 2014 there were the following number of higher education qualifications awarded in the UK:
- 103,950 qualifications awarded in medicine and related subjects.
- 81,630 qualifications awarded in biological and physical sciences.
- 72,425 qualifications awarded in engineering and related subjects.
- 30,520 qualifications awarded in computer science and related subjects.
- 11,485 qualifications awarded in mathematical sciences.
If we add up the number of graduate jobs available in the same year 2014 within all the above sectors it totals to just over 65,000.
My opinion that the skill shortage is nothing more than myth has been formed using cold hard facts and actual hands-on experience of working both as an engineer and a recruiter within these industries and sectors.
I welcome opinions from both sides of the debate. What are your thoughts?
This article is the 2nd instalment of my editorial series ‘Why is the Recruitment Industry Rotten to the Core?’
Click here for Part 1: Why is the Recruitment Industry Rotten to the Core?
Click here to read part 3: The Unethical Practices and Tactics within the Industry.