Global shortage of engineering skills could put safety at risk

Posted: Friday 13th March 2020

Lack of available data hampers action on safe and innovative engineering.

As the pace of technological change accelerates, no nation can afford to ease up on their efforts to conduct engineering in a safe and innovative way, according to research commissioned by the Royal Academy of Engineering and Lloyd’s Register Foundation as part of Engineering X, a new international collaboration that brings together some of the world’s leading problem-solvers to address the great challenges of our age. The report coincides with the first UN World Engineering Day for Sustainable Development on 4 March.

Prepared by the Economist Intelligence Unit, the Global Engineering Capability Review measures the abilities of 99 countries to conduct key engineering activities in a safe and innovative way. It focuses on six measures of engineering capability around the world: the strength and sophistication of the country’s engineering industry, the availability and diversity of its engineering labour force, its knowledge base, built and digital infrastructure and safety standards.

In the global engineering index of 99 countries, the UK features in the top ten of just two categories — knowledge and safety standards. By contrast, Singapore is in the top ten in five out of the six categories and comes first under labour force, digital infrastructure and safety standards. The US leads the knowledge rankings, in stark contrast with its safety ranking.

The review aims to provide a baseline to help policymakers, educators and business executives understand their country’s relative engineering strengths and to identify and address capability gaps that are barriers to safe and sustainable development.

The review highlights examples of top performing countries:

· Knowledge: Malaysia

· Malaysia is the world's 23rd highest investor in R&D as a percentage of GDP (1.44%) and 24th in the world for patent applications with 1,116 filed in 2018. It also punches above its weight (at 19th) for the number of universities ranked within the world’s top 500 for engineering. This belies a global GDP ranking of 41 and reflects a strong emphasis on engineering in education.

· Labour force: Iran

· Iran tops the index for the highest percentage of graduates (of both sexes) from tertiary education in the fields of engineering, manufacturing and construction, at 30%.

· Engineering Industry: Rwanda

· Despite ranking 81st overall in this category, Rwanda is ranked 12th for the percentage of medium and large companies in engineering fields as a percentage of all medium and large companies in the country.

· Infrastructure: Panama

· Panama ranks 24th in this category but is placed joint 13th for quality of port infrastructure, primarily the Panama Canal, which links the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans – a vital passage for global maritime trade.

· Digital infrastructure: Estonia

· Despite ranking 37th in national internet speed, Estonia’s ranking of 9th for both the number of servers and the Digital Adoption Index lift it to 12th place in the overall category index.

· Safety Standards: Singapore

· Singapore boasts a highly impressive record in this category, leading the overall rankings and topping the Safety Outcomes indicator.

The Economist Intelligence Unit was also asked to assess sectoral growth prospects across 20 countries to help policymakers identify potential areas to consider when designing policies that enhance domestic engineering capability. The review highlights some specific capability issues in six different countries, discussing the context and drivers of engineering capability gaps as well as initial thoughts on how to address them. These include:

· the production problems facing China as it seeks to become a global leader in AI;

· environmental and sustainability issues facing Thailand as a key supplier for a growing global market for concrete and sand;

· how Jordan, as one of the world’s driest countries, is facing a crisis in water supply and management that is compounded by a large and growing refugee population.

Professor Peter Goodhew CBE FREng, Chair of the Engineering X Engineering skills where they are most needed Board, said: “We know that engineering offers an important lever by which countries around the world will be able to achieve sustainable development goals. This review is important because engineers and engineering cannot perform this role efficiently, effectively and safely without the appropriate infrastructures being in place, and this requires the shared understanding, cooperation and coordinated action of policymakers, educators, business executives and others.

“There is no one-size-fits all approach and countries struggle to address all the factors that can contribute to engineering strength and to develop a pipeline of engineering talent that will match their growing and diverse needs. Engineering X has ambitious goals to help. We hope the Global Engineering Capability Review will help countries to learn from the achievements of others and to benchmark their progress towards remedying natural, economic and social problems in a safe and sustainable way.”

Professor Richard Clegg FREng, Chief Executive of Lloyd’s Register Foundation, says: “Lloyd’s Register Foundation reduces risk and enhances the safety of the critical infrastructure that society relies upon. Engineers in countries around the world can support human livelihood and dignity, the improvement of systems and the avoidance of harm. But they can only do so if these same countries understand their own engineering strengths, address their weaknesses and acknowledge where there are new and emerging safety challenges to be overcome. Many of these safety challenges cannot be tackled by working alone. We are partnering with the Academy because they can help us build coalitions with willing partners all around the world.”

Conclusions and recommendations

Drawing on the evidence collected, the review offers two specific recommendations for international organisations along with governments, industry and the engineering community in all countries to support engineering skills for safe and sustainable development:

1. Strengthen the evidence base - Many countries struggle to collect and report accurate data on a variety of indicators that could support safe and innovative engineering.

· National data collection and reporting accuracy should be enhanced by implementing best practice in labour force survey methodology and by the better use of survey technology.

· The misalignment on how to categorise an “engineer” and the skills the role requires could be addressed by developing an engineering skills taxonomy and disaggregating the data on engineers collected through labour force surveys.

2. Focus on quality, not quantity - Countries often face problems not in producing engineers but in producing high-quality engineers who are adequately trained.

· Opportunities are needed for engineering industry-academia collaboration and for ongoing professional development of both recent engineering graduates and experienced engineers.

· Institutions should develop interdisciplinary engineering curricula and alternative education models focused on project-based learning that provide students with real-world engineering experience.

· Transnational collaboration should be encouraged between Engineering Regulation Boards in order to develop international professional certifications that encourage greater labour mobility of quality engineers.

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