In a report presented to the defence secretary, head of the Military Aviation Authority (MAA), Air Marshal Dick Garwood has warned that he could give only “limited assurance” of air safety due to a “significant & widespread” shortage of suitably qualified and experienced engineers, aircrew and air traffic managers.
This doesn’t mean military aviation is unsafe as Garwood also reported a historically low accident rate for the previous 12 months. However due to gaps in personnel routine air worthiness issues are not being addressed.
Whilst it’s important to stress this is not a new problem: the MAA having reported shortages of skilleved civil and military personnel throughout its 4 year history, there is still an imminent threat to British military aviation safety.
The shortages, particularly of engineers and others at the Defence Equipment & Support (DE&S) arm of the Defence Ministry, is not an isolated issue affecting only military aviation safety. Garwood's MAA report said the Defence Board, led by Defence Secretary Michael Fallon, considers:
"achieving and sustaining manpower numbers and skills as the greatest single challenge currently facing the department."
As of September 2014, the Ministry of Defence was advertising over 170 roles spread across program and project management posts and engineering and science posts.
"The problem is most acute in posts relating to aircraft engineering,"
an MoD spokesman said.
The Defence Equipment & Support arm has had some success in plugging the gaps with a recruitment campaign netting 32 new staff. There is also considerable effort being made to keep the 300 existing airworthiness safety critical staff with a new reward and recognition plan. Under new salary freedoms being implemented at DE&S, the organization is finally able to compete against the private sector to keep the skills they desperately need. And, by extension lure the best candidates away to maintain our armed services’ aircraft.
There is little doubt that the Defence Board’s key focus is finding and retaining capable men and women for the British Army reserves as this arguably has a higher impact on national defence, but there is no escaping the fact that attracting and retaining engineers, technicians and others to operate and support the military's increasingly exotic equipment is also a major headache.
Among the armed services, the problem is most acute in the Royal Navy. It has had to resort to borrowing US Coast Guard maritime engineers to fill skill gaps on its Type 23 frigate fleet and elsewhere.
A source close to the Navy said one idea under consideration, amongst many others, is to encourage engineers from industry to join the service in a sideways entry set-up. They would undergo the same training as a new recruit but upon passing out they would commence their service at a rank relative to their position and experience in the private sector. Like the military, industry is also threatened by the scarcity of engineers and technicians emerging from Britain's universities and elsewhere which may turn the race to snap up engineers into a bum fight.
According to experts in the field the engineering sector will need 182,000 people a year by 2022 and there is already a shortfall of 55,000 skilled workers. Jon Louth, director of the Defence, Industries and Society program at the Royal United Services Institute think tank in London commented:
"It's an important part of the skills agenda that there is a real commitment to future programs and technology by the MoD at the requirement stage, otherwise it's difficult to see how the key skills and competencies industry requires are going to be maintained," Louth said.
The potential fallout could be catastrophic with the MoD and the private sector scrambling for a diminishing pool of skills, especially if some of those private organisations deliver government contracts, effectively meaning the armed services would be fighting itself for staff. Inevitably it would drive salaries up and standards down.
Many private firms are funding initiatives to introduce engineering to children which is an admirable and long term endeavour that will bear fruit; it does nothing to alleviate the real and present issue affecting the industry and our national defence.
The threat to industry health was the result of work conducted by the trade lobby group ADS.
"There is clearly a need for a focus on boosting engineering skills. Research undertaken last year by ADS indicated one in five defence companies were concerned about accessing the necessary research and development skills," an ADS spokeswoman said. "Similarly, one in four security organizations were concerned as to how they would meet domestic and international demand with the current UK skillset."
Electus Recruitment has a long history in the aerospace and defence industries and we have seen the steady increase in need verses a decline in talent. Whilst we’re hopeful this trend will eventually plateau there is no denying the engineering industry is on the verge of a crisis.
If you're an engineer looking for your next role submit your CV here.