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Technical talent

Engineering is crucial to the UK economy, but the skills gap is growing. FMJ asked building services provider JCA how it finds, trains and motivates its staff

Engineering is a critical part of the UK economy, employing around 20 per cent of the total workforce and generating approximately 23 per cent of the UK’s total turnover. It is now more important than ever, in the face of technological advances and the changing political and economic landscape, to ensure a steady flow of skilled engineers.

Yet according to Engineering UK, there is a considerable shortage of appropriately skilled workers in the engineering sector. In 2017, vacancies in construction went up to 27 per cent. A recent study carried out by Warwick Institute of Employment Studies estimates that every year, over 124,000 graduate and technician core engineering jobs need filling, partly due to new jobs being created, partly due to replacement demand. Current estimates suggest a shortfall of between 37,000 and 59,000 in meeting annual demand.

JCA Engineering, a privately-owned company founded in 2004, provides services including building engineering, interior fit-out, maintenance and design. The company operates throughout the UK in a variety of sectors, including healthcare, government, education, commercial, data centres and science and technology.

Tom Absalom, JCA’s Managing Director, is clear about the company’s biggest asset – its people (JCA is a living wage employer). “JCA is a business that is as passionate about its people as it is for the creativity and imagination of its engineering. The staff are key in ensuring the core business culture and ethos are maintained.” Clients are assigned a team owner responsible for customer service as well as technical expertise. This approach is consistent across all client engagements, ranging from mobile maintenance contracts to design and build construction projects.

This means JCA has to find the right people to do the job and encourage them to stay. In 2018, growth in turnover and workforce led JCA to appoint its first organisational development lead, marking the beginning of a new approach to recruitment, retention, development and training. Today, the team is responsible for finding high-quality candidates, both internally and externally, as well as ensuring that once on board the recruits participate in the company’s employee engagement programme.

Emma Lee is responsible for implementing the new recruitment, retention and development programme. “Our aim is to recruit high-calibre people, develop them and retain them at every level,” she says. “At JCA we have a carefully planned approach to recruitment, development and engagement to ensure we retain high-calibre individuals. We find that this approach results in low staff turnover, evidenced through a large number of engineers who have been with us for 10 years or more.”

The personalisation of JCA’s recruiting and pipelining processes aims to build relationships in advance, so that when a requirement to recruit for a new role arises, there’s already a pool of potential candidates within the company.

Once on board, employees are equipped with all the information they need to perform their role and made aware of their individual importance to the overall business strategy. Other jobseekers hear that the organisation is a great place to work and develop. Additionally, a robust culture rooted in the company’s values encourages people to question and challenge the company’s strategic plans and vision at every level.

While training and upskilling opportunities are available at every level, it’s particularly important to ensure leaders have the skills to motivate their teams. Senior managers are regularly enrolled on management development courses to evaluate and improve their skills. Developing core leadership skills from the bottom up is also essential to build a structured succession plan. JCA invests heavily in recognising and training aspiring next-generation leaders. Understanding the needs and goals of the current and next generation allows for a more agile approach and helps to clear the way for those keen to develop and deliver to their full potential.

According to Engineering UK, the skills gap is driven by strong competition for skilled candidates, a shortage of applicants with appropriate qualifications, and lack of awareness among young people of career options in the engineering industry. There is a clear need to strengthen knowledge of the profession. Engineering UK estimates that only around 25 per cent of young people aged 11 to 16 know what people working in engineering do.

One of the ways JCA tackles this challenge is by connecting with local schools through the Careers Enterprise Network in areas where the company is working on projects or maintaining sites, offering advice and support to pupils as they contemplate the world of work. Promoting engineering and STEM subjects, especially among girls, helps younger people think differently about their future options and consider routes they hadn’t thought to explore, such as engineering apprenticeships.

Having these links with local schools also creates a future pipeline of potential apprentices or employees. Providing young people in school or college with work experience introduces them to the reality of working life as well as the varied possibilities of a career in engineering.

Another issue is the continuing gender disparity in engineering. While women comprised around 47 per cent of the overall UK workforce in 2018, only 12 per cent of women worked in engineering occupations.

Kirsty Eyles, JCA’s Lead Water Technician at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital, is certain that it’s lack of belief in their own capabilities that often stops women from attempting to enter the world of engineering. “Engineering is fun, challenging, innovative and fast moving. I would encourage women to dare to take up that challenge and risk entering men-dominated career fields. In my experience, women often think they cannot do certain technical tasks when faced with something they have never done before, while men automatically assume they can. When I look around me, I see women engineers in many fields – mechanical, electrical, structural, materials, computer sciences. Anything is possible.”

While progress has been made, it’s clear more needs to be done to promote engineering careers to women and young people. Engineering organisations need to take positive action to ensure a reliable supply of skilled engineers for this crucial industry.

About Sarah OBeirne

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