Last week, the US Aerospace Industries Association highlighted what it believes will be an imminent shortfall in qualified engineering staff in the US market. Now Working Week examines the situation in the UK, which has striking parallels with the USA.

The UK aerospace maintenance and engineering sector is facing many of the same problems as its US counterpart. Inadequate training provision means there is increasingly a lack of experienced maintenance engineers in the UK.

Alan Maskell, engineering business group manager at recruitment firm TAC Europe, believes companies will soon find it difficult to find the right people for maintenance roles. Some are already struggling, he says.

Part of the problem is that fewer companies are offering engineering apprenticeships. There has been a significant fall in apprenticeship places since the early 1990s. BA once took several hundred trainees but now takes a fraction of that number. BAE Systems formerly offered places at Woodford in Manchester and Aviation Services in Filton, for example - but neither site is still being used for those functions.

"BAE now has no interest in aircraft maintenance," says Maskell. "Marshall Aerospace has always taken a few people and ATC Lasham takes some each year, but generally there are far fewer apprenticeships available."

Many of those apprenticeships that are available are massively over-subscribed. Cambridge-based Marshall, for example, which has taken apprentices every year since 1929, received around 135 applications this year for 18 places.

"Our output last year was 23% of the UK national modern apprenticeship total in the industry," says Marshall spokesman Terry Holloway. "In some ways, we're very proud of that, because it shows how much we put into training, but it's also a sad figure, because it shows how little everyone else does."

However, there are signs that some organisations are recognising that a lack of maintenance professionals may soon become a serious problem. Marshall Aerospace engages in cross-training programmes, retraining people with experience in other mechanical industries to work on aircraft.

Kingston University, in partnership with KLM UK Engineering, is offering a foundation degree programme in aircraft engineering, which includes spending time at KLM's maintenance facility in Norwich.

Maskell, however, has doubts that a co-ordinated industry-wide strategy is in place for plugging this particular skills gap. "I'm glad the Kingston course exists," he says, "but there needs to be something following that. Will all these people be able to find work placements, for example?"

Continental Europe, perhaps especially eastern Europe with its crop of skilled engineers, may be the ultimate beneficiaries if the UK is unable to address the shortfall before it becomes chronic.

"We've been bringing in quite a few from Sweden and Denmark already," says Maskell. "When we start needing more people, companies will be more willing to take them from further afield."

Source: Flight International