Subsea engineering is one of the UK’s main global strengths. According to research by the Institute of Marine Engineering, Science and Technology (IMarEST), the nation generates a staggering £8.9bn of the £20bn global subsea engineering spend. There is no doubt then that the UK’s subsea engineers are some of the best and most in-demand workers in the world. They are also becoming some of the rarest.
In order to keep up with an increasingly competitive market, IMarEST suggests that the UK will require an additional 10,000 skilled workers. And with engineering apprenticeships rising by 40% in recent years, this starkly identified STEM gap should soon be plugged.
Except, the gap appears to be worsening. Particularly for maritime engineers, there is a distinct lack of graduates emerging in the field. On top of this, the UK Navel Engineering, Science and Technology Forum (UK NEST) revealed that the maritime sector is struggling with a huge number of retirees, along with a diminishing mid-career pool.
With all the recent educational drive to push STEM into the forefront of student attention, why is it that the STEM gap does not appear to be healing? More importantly, what can be done to plug the gap in subsea engineering?
Often, when the topic of the STEM gap is brought up, attentions turn to education. What can be done to entice more students to pursue a career in engineering? How can we bring fresh blood into the sector? But this hyper-focus on new recruits may well have had an unintended - and unpleasant - side effect.
Stats from IMarEST paint a startling picture, with 90% of engineering businesses saying they are experiencing difficulty in recruitment. But this doesn’t just cover new engineers coming out of university with their fresh, STEM-campaigned degree in hand. For many engineering businesses, the problem lies in being able to recruit skilled, mid-career talent, such as those within the 35-45 age bracket.
Not only are engineering businesses finding it hard to recruit such engineers, for the maritime sector in particular, they are struggling to hold on to their current employees. There are many examples of subsea and maritime engineers leaving that side of the sector in pursuit of more lucrative roles in oil and gas engineering.
After all, one of the perks of being trained in engineering is that the basic rules remain the same regardless of which area of engineering an employee works in. This makes for a highly transferable - and highly unstable - employee pool.
Much like with education, it is difficult to discuss the STEM gap without mentioning the gender gap. Sadly, the UK is still the lowest in Europe in terms of its female engineering population - less than 10% of UK engineers are female, compared to countries such as Bulgaria, where nearly 30% of its engineers are women.
We’ve heard countless times how female students tend to perform the best in STEM subjects, and some reports suggest there isn’t much difference between male and female take up and success in GCSE STEM subjects. Yet the nation is still failing to draw upon this available talent.
There is no doubt women make some of the best engineers, and certainly one of the more beneficial widespread beliefs about engineering is the enticing salary. In fact, the gender pay gap in engineering is much smaller than the UK average, standing at just 10.8% and with work ongoing to close that gap entirely.
The incentives are there. The funds have been poured in to boost STEM subject uptake, to demolish gender stereotypes within engineering, and we even have a national day for engineering in the UK now.
So, why aren’t engineers flooding through the gates? And, more worryingly for maritime engineering, why are so many engineers under the belief that the grass is greener in oil and gas engineering?
It all boils down to reputation. Compared to other countries, the UK has done a lacklustre job in portraying engineers in a positive light in the past. While it’s well-known that a career in engineering comes with a healthy enough salary, the rest of engineering’s image has been left to be tarnished by old, outdated concepts of getting one’s hands dirty and being worked to the bone. There has been very little to spotlight the prestige of engineering, the sense of achievement within the career, and the vital work being lauded by the country. Compared to prestigious careers such as becoming a doctor or a lawyer, becoming an engineer simply isn’t held in the same regard. The term 'engineer' is used quite flippantly in the UK without much regard, whereas in other countries, the term is treated like a title that must be earned, similar to 'doctor'.
This idea of prestige (or lack thereof) is present even within the engineering sector itself. The oil industry has long been held in lofty regard in terms of being a powerhouse for one’s career and salary. It carries a prestige of its own within the engineering community, so it makes sense that engineers will gravitate towards the more lucrative end of society’s view of engineering. Working in the oil industry might get a few impressed nods at a dinner party, akin to declaring yourself a doctor.
Plugging the STEM gap cannot be done with one tactic. Rather, it needs a multi-pronged approach - students need to be educated on the benefits of a career in STEM. Female students need to be encouraged by dismantling outdated and untrue stereotypes. But on top of that, engineering as a whole needs to undergo a revolution in terms of rebranding. The UK’s engineering sector is held in high regard by the rest of the world - it’s long past time the UK itself held its own engineers in the same prestigious light.