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Global engineering skills shortage could put safety at risk

11 March 2020

A new report from Engineering X has found that the sector’s lack of skilled engineers hinders safe and innovative engineering.

(Image: Shutterstock)

As the pace of technological change accelerates, no nation can afford to ease up on their efforts to conduct engineering safely, 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.

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

“Engineering X has ambitious goals to help countries to address all the factors that contribute to engineering strength. 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, said: 

“In today’s modern world, much of the critical infrastructure we rely on, from food to transport and energy, requires good engineering standards of design, construction, operation and maintenance to keep them safe. 

“With the global growth in critical infrastructure – particularly the case in developing economies – there is a need to ensure that the availability of qualified and professional engineers satisfies demand. 

“Engineering X study seeks to shine a light on identifying where in the world there are strengths and weaknesses in engineering skills and gaps in provision. Based on the insights gathered, steps can then be designed involving people working together to close the skills gap in areas where the greatest need exists.”

Conclusions and recommendations

Drawing on the evidence collected, the review offers two specific recommendations for international organisations 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 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 to develop international professional certifications that encourage greater labour mobility of quality engineers.

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