Qualified Manpower in Engineering: Britain and Other Industrially Advanced Countries

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This article examines the numbers of skilled persons in engineering and allied occupations who qualify each year throughout the skill range--from an engineering doctorate to craftsmen and technicians--and compares Britain with other advanced industrial countries. The main quantitative difference between Britain and other countries lies in the numbers qualifying at the level of qualified craftsman; attention is also drawn to an important qualitative difference in practical content and length of university-degree courses in engineering.

Concern as to the adequacy of technical training in British engineering is of long standing: are enough people trained to sufficiently high standards? Continuing rapid expansion in education in all countries makes it worth looking again at how numbers qualifying in engineering and technologically-related subjects in Britain compare with other leading industrial countries, to ask whether there is a shortfall in Britain and, if so, whether it arises at the top--amongst those engaged in research and development; or amongst those organising and managing production with degree-level qualifications; or amongst those with intermediate technician qualifications; or amongst those engaged directly in production requiring craft-level qualifications or their equivalent.

The view of UK government officials, put forward with certain reservations in a recent Employment Gazette (hereafter: EG), is that Britain now is `on a par with other countries'; and when qualifications at upper levels--ranging from technician to post-graduate--are taken together and expressed per head of employed population, the numbers qualifying in the UK in 1983 apparently exceeded those in France, West Germany, Japan and the USA.(1) The government's statisticians had taken as their starting point the figures reproduced in Unesco's Statistical Yearbook, while retaining doubts as to whether the classification of engineering qualifications was on all fours for the various countries; further research was called for.

The Engineering Council, with their close knowledge of competition provided by the technical qualities of foreign products, disagreed with the substance and statistical detail of the official message. Having taken advice from a number of researchers, the Council disputed--by way of particular example--the EG figures for Japan relating to qualified technicians which, the Engineering Council was satisfied, was only a fraction of the correct number; this was subsequently agreed in substance in a further article in the Employment Gazette.(2)

This Note looks in more detail at the types of qualification and numbers qualifying in France, West Germany and the United States, as well as Japan, starting from each country's original returns rather than the summaries prepared for the Unesco Yearbook. There is of course no exact correspondence amongst countries in scope and standards of qualifications; and approximations are inevitable in making international comparisons. But the kind of definitional short-cuts adopted by Unesco to gain a semblance of equivalence for their purposes--when comparing very diverse industrialised and developing countries--are not necessarily the best when we are concerned solely in comparing advanced industrial countries. Hence it should not occasion surprise that the results presented here differ.

We shall consider in turn the numbers in a recent year in each country qualifying in engineering with higher degrees, first degrees, technician qualifications and craft qualifications; a summary is offered at the end of each section in view of many complex issues relating to the equivalence of standards in different countries at each level of qualification.(3) Adjustment for size of country is hardly necessary in comparing the UK, France and Germany, since they have very similar total populations (56, 55 and 61 million); Japan's population is about double that size (120 million) and that of the US about four times (240 million), and these provide simple factors for standardisation. …