The further education sector must "step up" and play a bigger role in training the next generation of engineers and technicians to address a national shortage, it has been claimed.
The UK needs an estimated 1 million extra engineers by 2020, but at present only about 65,000 students graduate in the subject each year - 15,000 from higher education and 50,000 from FE - and the majority do not have the skills that employers require.
Dr Rhys Morgan, education director at the Royal Academy of Engineering, told TES there was a "serious need" to train as many people as possible, particularly in higher-level skills, to replace an ageing workforce and meet employers' needs. The FE sector alone had the potential to solve the problem, he said.
"FE has a critical role to play in securing the next generation of engineers and technicians. This is absolutely vital and can't be understated," he added. "The HE sector is full to capacity and on the whole doesn't see any business case to expand. We won't see any major expansion in the HE sector, so we hope the FE sector can step up and play a much bigger role."
Dr Morgan said FE colleges were ideally placed to help because of their knowledge of local skills needs and existing relationships with employers. Businesses also preferred work-ready FE graduates with hands-on experience to the more academic HE graduates, he said, adding: "For me the real key, the jewel in the FE sector, is that employer engagement.
"However, FE needs to build a much deeper engagement with employers, changing the curriculum to meet their needs and bringing practising engineers into classrooms to deliver some of the teaching. They can bring real-life context to young people as well as identifying potential future employees.
"There's also potential for a reciprocal arrangement, where small and medium employers can make use of the specialist equipment that colleges have."
Colleges could also help students and their parents to get a better understanding of engineering and dispel out-of-date perceptions about it being a "dirty, oily" trade, Dr Morgan said.
The academy is planning to carry out a national audit of FE colleges to assess the needs of engineering departments and to find out what facilities are available. It also appreciates the need for more CPD for FE teachers to get them up to speed with the latest engineering developments, processes and materials, and is looking at what it can do to help.
The Association of Colleges agreed that colleges had a crucial role to play, but said a lot of them were already investing in new facilities in response to local skills needs. Deputy chief executive Gill Clipson added: "Many colleges are working with employers and universities to ensure the needs of industry are reflected in the training and development of young people and adults in Stem [science, technology, engineering and maths] subjects."
In a review of engineering skills published last November, Professor John Perkins, chief scientific adviser to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, made 22 recommendations to address the issue, calling for action by engineering employers, workers and educators as well as government.
The department said it was working to implement those recommendations, and would soon announce how an extra pound;30 million would be spent to develop engineering skills.
"We are providing the Education and Training Foundation with grant funding of pound;19 million in 2014-15 to support its work to raise education teaching standards across FE, including through closer engagement of business," a spokeswoman said. "And since the launch of the college capital fund in December 2012, we have committed over pound;471 million in capital grant funding to enable FE colleges to invest in modern facilities."