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We must all play our part in tackling engineering skills shortages

Posted: 06 November 2023

On the launch of the 11th annual Tomorrow’s Engineers Week (6-10 November 2023), Benjamin Toule, head of the engineering department at West Nottinghamshire College, says education-providers and employers must work together to develop the workforce of the future.

"The most progressive engineering businesses are the ones that invest in apprenticeship schemes," says Benjamin Toule.
"The most progressive engineering businesses are the ones that invest in apprenticeship schemes," says Benjamin Toule.

It is widely known there is a crippling skills shortage in the engineering industry. According to the Institution of Engineering and Technology, almost half of engineering and technology businesses are experiencing difficulties recruiting workers with the skills they need. (1)

So, what is the sector doing about it?

I am a huge advocate for apprenticeships and, as someone who completed a formal apprenticeship in engineering that laid the foundations for a successful and rewarding career, I know from experience the opportunities they create – and what they can bring to a business.

I was extremely fortunate to learn from some highly-skilled and competent engineers who were never reluctant to pass on their knowledge and ‘tricks of the trade’. This is how it should be – years and years of powerful experience to share with others, to create a sustainable landscape that continues to evolve through the generations. I was part of the evolution too. As my career advanced, I was able to pass on my own skills, safe in the knowledge that I was playing a pivotal role not only in the development of individuals but also the wider sector.

Nationally, too many firms simply complain about the skills shortages but are seemingly reluctant to do anything about it. Yet the solution is quite simple: nurture and grow your own talent. The engineering profession has an obligation to create the future generation of engineers and technicians to ensure that we safeguard the industry.

Engineering itself is a traditional craft – but it is also the future; one which offers rewarding, long-term career prospects, multiple avenues to develop, and decent earning potential. Mansfield and Ashfield – the two main districts served by West Nottinghamshire College – have always had a proud engineering heritage but, sadly, the decline of the coal mining and textile industries also badly hit the services that supported them.

Thankfully, there are positive shoots of recovery, with many initiatives in place to support the growth of not only traditional engineering but also more modern technologies such as robotics and automation. This is exemplified by plans to develop a new £100m innovation and technology park in Ashfield, which will include the Automated Distribution and Manufacturing Centre – a multi-function centre that will have intrinsic links with industry, the college and other partners.

Growth in the form of capital developments is fantastic news – but what about the growth in human resource to support these? If organisations do not act now, the skills shortages and gaps will surely only get bigger.

From my own experience, the most progressive engineering businesses are the ones that invest in apprenticeship schemes. What better way to solve a skills shortage than to mould people into the professional asset that you need? Hiring an apprentice is an effective way to grow and supplement a workforce – and, with the right focus and investment, a great way to develop a skilled and qualified team.

Don’t just take my word for it – the Government’s own apprenticeship website states that 86% of employers said apprenticeships helped them develop skills relevant to their organisation, and 78% of employers said apprenticeships helped them improve productivity. This is proof that investment is key and that you will reap what you sow. (2)

The engineering sector has the capacity to adapt training to meet the needs of a business, with people that are motivated to learn new skills. On a personal level, I’ve had immense satisfaction watching people develop and flourish into a valuable asset, not only to their business but to the industry.

Apprenticeships offer individuals the chance to gain real-world knowledge and experience while gaining valuable qualifications. The opportunity to get paid to learn is surely too good to miss. However, it’s equally important to consider how businesses retain their investments.

Too many firms complain that apprentices leave them once they have completed their training and gained their qualification. Yet some of the most successful local engineering organisations that I visit are the ones that keep their apprentices. It is immensely pleasing to walk around a company and see former apprentices fully-immersed in the business as part of a skilled and efficient workforce. The key to these successes is simple: motivate apprentices with a vision for the future. We should promote loyalty by truly valuing current and former apprentices and recognising them as the skilled asset that they have become.

West Nottinghamshire College is helping to develop tomorrow's engineers. Our engineering department is blessed with state-of-the-art equipment, and teachers who have worked in the sector, to provide work-relevant training to students and apprentices, with provision shaped by the requirements of local industry.

However, while the college can educate and deliver the required knowledge and skills, it still needs the help from businesses to support with this. We build on partnerships with employers that offer students valuable work experience and industry placements. These initiatives are vital in the development of engineering students, as it opens their eyes to the opportunities available to them – as well as allowing them to make the links between what they are learning and what businesses are looking for.

As a college, we can teach them the skills, and work experience will teach them how to be a valuable employee.

It is clear we all have a role to play in developing the workforce of the future. Collectively, we must be part of the solution to tackling the skills shortages in engineering that will safeguard the sector.

Benjamin Toule is head of the engineering department at West Nottinghamshire College.

Tomorrow’s Engineers Week (#TEWeek23) is organised by Engineering UK to shine a spotlight on engineering and careers in the industry. Now in its 11th year, the annual campaign aims to show young people, their influencers and the general public the real face of modern engineering and to understand that engineering is for everyone.

(1) Engineering Kids’ Futures report, published by The Institution of Engineering and Technology in 2022:

(2) ‘What are the benefits of hiring an apprentice?’ – UK Government’s apprenticeship website:

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