An Age-Old Conundrum: Balancing Experience with Youth in the Engineering Talent Pool

Engineers at work

The process industry is facing a staffing crisis that’s being echoed right across the engineering industry and reflects current demographic trends in the UK.

An ageing workforce is likely to remain in the industry for longer due to the increase in pensionable age, which is leaving precious little avenues for a declining younger population (who are generally turned off by the industry’s image anyway) to enter the workplace.

In a blog post for Just Engineers, Peter Davies - Managing Consultant at Berkley Engineering - said: “It was recently estimated that, in America alone, STEM jobs will grow by 17% between 2008 and 2018, compared to just 9.8 percent-growth in other roles. However, at the current pace, the U.S. simply will not produce enough workers to fill the jobs.”

We face a similar picture in the UK, with predictions that the sector will need a further 2.2 million employees over the next 5-10 years. However, according to the Institution of Mechanical Engineers: “Despite the major contribution engineering makes to the UK economy employment levels have declined by about 40% since 1988, against a background of a rise in UK general employment of 10%.”

Conundrum time Countdown fans. The problem is complex and two-fold. Firstly the actual number of young people entering the job market is predicted to fall dramatically. According to the CIPD: “Current employer plans suggest that we will need to fill 13.5 million job vacancies in the next ten years, but only 7 million young people will leave school and college.”

Secondly, we’re an ageing population that’s living longer and expected to work longer to claim a reasonable pension. According to the Institution of Mechanical Engineers again: “The Engineering Council 2010 survey of registered engineers indicates that fewer Chartered and Incorporated Engineers had fully retired, partially retired or taken early retirement than was the case in 2007.”

So what’s to be done to prevent the industry from careening over the “retirement cliff” as Davies puts it? His advice is simple: “There is a need for those in the sector to do more to reach out to the emerging employment generation and educate them on the importance of these skills sets,” he says.

Seems logical. But should we consider the static nature of an ageing engineering workforce as a positive - with a wealth of experience and knowledge to be mined – or is this hampering a new generation from bursting through and refreshing the industry’s outlook?

According to a 2008 paper by the Institute for Fiscal Studies: “Controlling for population size (and overall demand), the employment rate of younger workers might be affected by the share of older workers employed.”

They add: “Compared to many continental European countries, the UK has not developed extensive policies to encourage older workers to leave jobs for the young.”

Perhaps there’s a need for clearly defined mentoring roles for the elder statesmen of engineering. Note the deliberate reference to ‘men’, who are by far and away the status quo within the sector (but that’s a whole other blog in itself!). But, unsurprisingly it’s not that simple, because to be a mentor you need young people to be banging on the door, mining this wealth of knowledge and then vying to take over. They simply are not at present.


There are great initiatives, like the Big Bang Fair and the online resource “Tomorrow’s Engineers” that are trying to make engineering “cool” again amongst school aged youngsters. However, while the economy might be on an upturn - unless the engineering industry can make itself more attractive and persistently recruit young engineers to the industry (quickly and in larger numbers); its general populous will simply continue to recede – both literally and metaphorically!


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