Demand remains strong for engineering talent in the UK, but recruiting in the sector faces some challenges brought on by a skills shortage. In addition, thanks to the rapid evolution of technology, clients are changing how they engage with recruitment firms. Brexit also looms with its uncertainty.

In a report released in early May, the Association of Professional Staffing Companies reported that demand for contract workers within engineering fell by 20%; however, demand for permanent placement rose by 16%.

We spoke to several executives at engineering recruitment firms to find out about all the trends happening in the market, and here is what we found.

The Candidate Experience

In the UK, competition is fierce for top engineering candidates, and there’s a growing shortage of talent with in-demand engineering skill sets, says David Lynchehaun, group sales director at the Morson Group.

And the skills shortage is more problematic in some sectors than others. For example, in the nuclear sector, nearly 50% of workers will reach retirement age in the coming decade.

Given the shortage, Lynchehaun says it has become increasingly important for clients to ensure the candidate journey is as positive and seamless as possible. This is especially true with social media and smart phones making communication ubiquitous; meaning a candidate’s unhappiness with the recruitment process can spread quickly.

Separately, some companies are also capitalizing on transferable skills by hiring people from alternative sectors. Casting the recruitment net outside of the traditional talent pool can help to deal with peaks and troughs during project delivery, while revealing insight into how best to upskill other candidates.

The demand for talent also highlights the need to bring more people into the engineering field and establish candidate pipelines that are fit-for-purpose. As they leave school, candidates are considering a multitude of industry pathways, and not necessarily engineering, which only fuels the problem further.

There’s also somewhat of an industry identity crisis going on in the UK, whereby young people simply aren’t aware of the breadth of roles and opportunities available in engineering, Lynchehaun says.


Technologies such as robotics, automation and artificial intelligence are also pushing engineering forward and having an impact and require new skills, says Scott Siwicki, client solutions director at recruitment firm Advantage Resourcing.

“Whilst we still require those traditional scientific, R&D and core skills, the speed of movement towards robotics, AI, automatization is fast and there is a struggle to keep up,” Siwicki says. “New apprenticeships are in place and investment in skills are there but these programs will take time to mature and it may take five to 10 years to catch up as engineering continues to advance.”

On the other hand, digitalization can also speed up access to talent and the recruitment process while enhancing the candidate/client experience.

And as the market evolves over the next few years, embracing technology will be a big factor.

Engaging recruitment firms

One of the biggest changes in UK engineering recruitment over the past 20 years is how clients work with recruitment firms, says Craig Slater, recruitment director EMEA at Airswift, who has a focus on perm recruitment.

“There’s been a massive shift in the way that the clients now want to partner with recruitment companies,” Slater says. “Now, it’s significantly more sophisticated.”

In the past, the focus was on whoever had the fastest fingers to respond to requisitions with an engineer who could start work the next day. Now, clients aim for a more considered approach, and for working with recruitment companies and recruiters who are subject matter experts in the specific engineering discipline sought — whether it be civil engineering, structural engineering or something else.

One of the reasons is to get the best candidate. “They are not looking for any available candidate, they are looking for the best person who can do the job as opposed to the most available person who can do the job,” Slater says. Retention has become paramount, and clients want to make sure they hire the right person the first time.

In turn, clients now pay upfront a portion of the recruitment fee, then pay the remainder once a person starts a job. That wasn’t the case in the past, and it changed the relationship between clients and recruitment firms to the more sophisticated standing of today.

“It’s more about experts working with experts,” Slater says. “They are experts in engineering, we are experts in finding engineers.”

The conversation changes, and recruiters focus on specific engineering disciplines, developing strong networks. The more generalist approach of sending the first candidate first falls by the wayside. However, the overall cost isn’t any more under the new relationship.

And Slater says the new type of relationship results in much better fill rates with workers that stay in for a longer time. For example, Airswift fills rates are 93% under the new model. In contingent search when recruitment firms are paid only when a candidate takes the job, fill rates could be around 17%.


What is Brexit’s impact on the UK engineering staffing market? Morson Group’s Lynchehaun says his company’s work is UK-based, however, there is a growing need for boots-on-the-ground labor, especially for major projects such as the High Speed 2 rail line. The UK has sourced workers from throughout Europe in the past to fill the labor gap, but it’s unknown how Brexit will ultimately affect such overseas labor pipelines.

“It’s an issue that is definitely being considered and forms part of the group’s ongoing risk assessment and risk mitigation. But until we know what the agreed Brexit deal looks like, it is still very much business as usual for Morson,” he says.