Why the engineering skills gap is so worrisome

As students near the end of their university education, they dream about their first jobs and where their career might lead. The ideal job will match their passion and skill set in an exciting challenge.

Meet Tom Gorgia. During his time at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, he studied mechanical engineering and gained real-world experience through EcoCAR, a competition the U. S. Department of Energy hosts for students to develop advanced technological cars with reduced environmental impact.

Tom was involved with EcoCAR throughout his undergraduate and graduate studies. General Motors is a headline sponsor of EcoCAR, providing schools with a vehicle and its CAD file for redesign. Tom dreamed of working in the automotive industry and engaged with GM at recruiting events for several years. When he was near the end of his collegiate education, Tom looked for the ideal job that would build on his education, skills and passion.

At the same time, GM was looking to fill a position in their Advanced Vehicle Development team. They need candidates with strong skills in critical thinking, problem solving and experience in NX and Teamcenter.

Tom was a perfect match. His education and real-world experience were what General Motors wanted in a new hire.

 Tom Gorgia_2_1.png

Tom Gorgia_EcoCAR Team_1.pngTom’s experience with real-world engineering skills and tools was a major reason why General Motors was interested in hiring him.

Tom’s story is unique. Perfect matches are rare. More often than not, employers struggle to find the right mix of education and experience in new grads.

The new normal has most recent graduates and employers at odds with each other, and this has potentially devastating consequences if it doesn’t change. 

The growing engineering skills gap 

Engineering and manufacturing companies are having trouble filling open positions. The number of companies having difficulty has jumped from 14 to 40 percent over the past decade – and worse, that increase will continue as demand to fill those jobs also increases.

Between 2014 and 2024, for example, demand for computing, advanced manufacturing and engineering jobs will increase from 12 to 19 percent. Most of those jobs won’t be filled because the people applying won’t have the skills employers want or need.

What’s contributing to this skills gap? There are numerous factors at play, but most can be broken down into three categories.

A retiring workforce. The pool of open jobs is growing as employers deal with an aging workforce. According to the World Economic Forum, nearly 65,000 people are reaching retirement age each day, and this global retirement trend will continue for the next decade. There are serious concerns that the incoming talent pipeline isn’t large enough to fill the number of jobs that will become available.

Not only will manufacturing and engineering employers lose a lot of expertise as a significant portion of its workforce retires, but this change could affect their long-term success in an increasingly competitive global economy. In the same World Economic Forum report, talented human capital is predicted to be the resource that will be the critical difference between prosperous and failing countries and companies. 

Not enough digital technology experience. Leaders in industry and academia agree that digital manufacturing technology will transform the digital manufacturing chain. As digitalization becomes more prevalent and the digital thread gives companies crucial information to improving their processes, the connectivity between designers, managers, consumers and physical assets will unleash new potential and transform manufacturing.

But manufacturers can’t fill all of the skilled production jobs they need to expand operations, drive innovation and improve productivity. According to a recent Deloitte study, 74 percent of respondents said that workforce shortages negatively impact their ability to accomplish these things. In the same study, 51 percent of respondents said they don’t have the skilled personnel or support teams to maintain high production and quality levels; it’s worse for small- to medium-sized businesses. 

Manufacturers want to streamline their production lines, and they want to implement more automation through their processes – but the workforce with the education and skills who could do it just isn’t there.

Higher education versus real-world experience. Manufacturing and engineering employers aren’t the only ones seeing problems with the skills gap: students see it, too. A startling number of students enrolled in engineering programs don’t believe they’re learning what they need to learn. We hear too many students say they have trouble seeing a viable career path for themselves if they graduate with a STEM degree. 

A colleague of mine recently visited his alma mater and was shocked to find that not much had changed in the engineering curriculum in 30 years. There’s a disconnect between what academia thinks students should learn and what employers think students should learn, and that disconnect will only grow as digitalization’s impact becomes more widespread.

The digital transformation companies want to undergo requires experienced workers to complete it – and many of the students leaving university simply don’t have the real-world education and experience with the methodologies, tools and programs that companies use for that transformation.

Leading universities have heard of digitalization and its role in the next Industrial Revolution, but too few truly understand what it means and how it will affect their students – and that must change. By looking at these contributing factors to this skills gap, we see that a workforce with the right education and experience will be the key to filling crucial job openings and shrinking the gap.

At Embry-Riddle, for example, the university’s latest impact report found that graduates who participate in EcoCAR beat the average starting salary than other graduates in the school, including their peers who graduate with mechanical and aerospace engineering degrees. 

Tom Gorgia_EcoCAR Team 2.jpgTom and his fellow EcoCAR team members are statistically more likely to beat the average starting salaries than other graduates in the school, including those who graduate with similar engineering degrees.

This should be the norm in universities moving forward – and it’s no small task. Accomplishing this will be a major challenge, but it is possible to overcome. Taking a closer look at that challenge, and how to overcome it, is the main idea we’ll explore in this series. 

This concludes the first part of our series on how academia can play a significant role in shrinking the engineering skills gap. In part two, we look at why academia is having trouble creating graduates who can help shrink the gap.

In the meantime, please watch this short video to gain more insight into the current engineering skills gap situation.

(Please use this link if you’re having trouble accessing the above link.) 

About the author 
Dora Smith is the senior 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.

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This article first appeared on the Siemens Digital Industries Software blog at https://blogs.sw.siemens.com/thought-leadership/2017/05/22/why-the-engineering-skills-gap-is-so-worrisome/