A few years ago when I took on my current role, one of our industry analysts asked me if there really was a skills gap. He had seen conflicting reports.
Even recently, MIT’s Technology Review published “The Myth of the Skills Gap” arguing the gap isn’t about skills but worker-employer coordination. I disagree. I agree we need more coordination, but as a means to strongly connect industry with academia to educate and train the specific skills that are at the crux of the gap.
Conflicting reports based on different data collection and representation demand original and focused research. We wanted to learn directly from manufacturers about any gaps they face now and expect in the immediate future. So we commissioned new research by Tech Clarity, detailed in “Close the Engineering Skills Gap – Prepare New Graduates to be Real-World Ready.” Tech-Clarity surveyed more than 200 manufacturers to identify the top skills employers look for as well as some of the top issues employers face as they attempt to address the skills gap.
The results of the research clearly identify there is a gap and detail the skills in that gap. One data point – more than 80 percent of employers feel students are either only somewhat prepared, need significant training or not at all prepared to use engineering software.
Another related data point – nearly half (46 percent) think students are not prepared to solve problems, which is core to engineering.
The MIT Technology Review author noted that “occupations evolve as technology advances.” This is exactly why we continue to face a skills gap today. Creating next generation products requires a different set of digital skills. Digital twins and digital threads are changing how products are designed and manufactures. Occupations are evolving and education and training have to catch up.
The author of the MIT article also noted that “instead of fretting about a skills gap, we should be focused on the real challenge of knitting together the supply and demand sides of the labor market.” If we can tie industry and academia closer together, then the skills in the gap will begin to shrink.
Until then, I’ll keep fretting.
How do we address the engineering skills gap?
The skills gap continues to grow, and it will do so until educators and employers work together to build a trained workforce with the right knowledge, skills and experience to succeed in a digital world. But what’s the best way to do that?
I like the summary of arguments on both sides noted in Education Week. Let’s pick one from each camp listed in the article:
• “Education and training institutions could redouble efforts to provide young people with stronger academic, technical and workplace skills.”
• “Business could work with education to shape career-focused high school programs and postsecondary training.”
Yes, to both. Education institutions and businesses both need to be engaged to make this work. We want to help insure this important connection happens.
• The majority of companies project their engineering department will need to grow over the next five to ten years to avoid serious loss. And, 95 percent of manufacturing engineers indicate that hiring will be critical to future success.
• Engineering departments at most companies are currently top heavy with experience, with greater percentages of experienced engineers compared to newer engineers. They will experience a seismic shift as nearly 30 percent of their engineering staff retire and are replaced by new engineers.
• In this staggering statistic, 98 percent of companies report there will be a negative business impact through loss of revenue, increased product costs, and poor design efficiency - if they cannot find and hire the right engineers.
• The majority of employers (63 percent) are having a difficult time finding engineering staff with the right skills.
As the field of engineering continues to advance, companies will need to adapt to the changing landscape by making sure they have highly skilled engineers working with them to stay competitive.
What are the skills students and new grads need? The research shows that:
• Companies considered to be top performers expect the balance of engineering disciplines to continue to change over the next five to ten years to include more electrical, software, and systems engineering skills.
• With the demand to make products smarter, engineers are expected to know more than ever. Most companies (75 percent) want students to be able to apply the technology to solve problems, not just know the “picks and clicks” of the software. Those problems include managing costs and manufacturability.
• Companies considered to be top performers need candidates who can globally collaborate and address newer technologies like additive manufacturing and embedded software. Students can best achieve skills in these areas through real-world projects that simulate an industry environment. In fact practical experience through real-world projects, including competitions, was the highest ranked desired quality in new hires.
One of the surprising and really telling findings in the research is that companies want more industry involvement in academic institution’s engineering curriculum, yet most admit they are not actively engaged with academic institutions. That’s the gap we want to bridge.
It’s not easy. Companies faced increased pressure and competition and while they believe in the idea, it is tough to take the time today to invest in the future pipeline of talent (the ROI is too far off). They need easy engagement models that don’t take too much time but provide ample opportunity to influence/impact.
The question that is central to the purpose of our global academic program is “How do we empower the next generation of engineers?” It’s not a question of if or when, just how. This research gives us a path forward.
For example, with industry input, we are collaborating with academia across disciplines and curricula. It’s just one way to bring industry closer to academia in order to shrink and eventually close the skills gap. We’re launching curriculum in systems driven product development and additive manufacturing. Our academic partners will soon have access to these industry-aligned/driven materials in their Learning Advantage account.
Tell us: Let us know your ideas on how to increase the collaboration between schools and industry to help close the skills gap.
About the author Dora Smith is the director of the global academic program for Siemens PLM Software, a business unit of Siemens Digital Factory Division. Under Dora’s leadership, the global academic program is now a company-wide strategic initiative for the company. The program empowers the next generation of digital talent through project-based learning, STEM competitions and industrial strength software and curriculum to support more than 1 million students and more than 3,000 institutions worldwide. Dora is an accredited business communicator with more than 20 years of experience. Previously, she held executive management positions at CAD Potential (now part of Tata Technologies), where she developed the company’s first academic and certification programs. Prior to that, she directed the Unigraphics Users Group (now PLM World) an independent, not-for-profit organization supporting the engineering community. She also served as president on the board of directors of IABC St. Louis. Dora earned her bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri-Columbia and a master’s degree in business administration from Washington University.