Is there a skills gap in the environmental engineering industry?

Stuart Cooper, director at CooperOstlund – a gas engine specification firm – discusses the industry’s skills gap

Stuart Cooper, director at CooperOstlund – a gas engine specification firm – discusses the industry’s skills gap

Although the engineering skills gap is currently a hot topic within the industry, the issue has been apparent for as long as I can remember. Whether a newly-qualified engineer straight from college, or a school leaver embarking on an apprenticeship programme, the situation has always been the same – getting stuck in from day one is never simple.

In fact, from our experience in the installation and servicing of combined heat & power (CHP) engines – with specialist expertise in the anaerobic digestion (AD) industry – we find that the majority of new starters need considerable training and development before they can start working on projects. For CooperOstlund, this need for skills development has always been a challenge.

As such, we put each of our new recruits through a comprehensive training programme, alongside assigning them with a personal mentor – typically a senior engineer with a number of years’ experience in the company. Their role is to teach new starters the ropes and get them up to speed quickly and effectively. This allows us to expand on existing engineering essential skills and principles, while utilising wider team knowledge of the environmental sector.

The reasoning behind this apparent skills gap, I believe, is simply a lack of practical experience. Although the rise of high quality engineering courses is significantly increasing the knowledge of today’s professionals, their practical application is actually quite limited. Putting theory into practice is seemingly a hurdle that must be overcome on the job.

Working as an engineer for a number of years, I’ve learnt to problem-solve. Whatever the engineering issue, taking a step back and thinking outside the box is often all it takes. This is a skill I believe is essential for all engineers, and something that our team practise on a daily basis. But it is developed with time.

We need to prioritise problem solving and identify ways to help young engineers hone their skills early. Apprenticeships and work experience are hugely valuable – building on theory and enabling young engineers to apply their knowledge to real world projects. I believe that supporting these programmes will help to build important skills early – not only making engineers ready for work right from the offset, but also improving problem solving capabilities across the board.

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