Paul Jackson on investing for the future

Posted on 3 Feb 2010 by The Manufacturer

There has never been a more important time to invest in the skills and infrastructure of the UK, says Chief Executive at EngineeringUK, Paul Jackson.

It’s tough to predict the future, as most predictions over the past couple of years have shown, but the UK economy is critically dependent on remaining the position as the world’s sixth largest manufacturer.

The UK has always been an ambitious place where ingenuity and inspiration have combined to produce some of the greatest inventions and industries the world has seen. From the railway to the wind turbine, the engineering and manufacturing industries have provided the backbone and sinews supporting our great leaps in national development. A prosperous UK must be a UK with a strong engineering and manufacturing industrial base, highlighted in the report, Engineering UK 2009/10, published last month.

In order to secure and sustain the UK’s leading role however, Government, business and education providers must work together to develop a strategic, long term roadmap for the engineering and manufacturing sectors.

Against the backdrop of monetary and fiscal belt-tightening, the UK will need to make hard decisions about where to invest in order to maximise opportunities in the aftermath of the recession, and first and foremost this includes the need to plan and invest in the right skills and training for the long-term. The Engineering UK 2009/10 report highlighted that the manufacturing sector will need to recruit over half a million (587,000) engineering and manufacturing workers with state-of the-art-skills by 2017 to ensure the UK economy remains internationally competitive. This means we must upskill our workforce in growth areas such as energy, utilities, infrastructure and high end manufacturing. In order to do this, we must address a number of obstacles including a rapidly diminishing talent pool – 16% fewer 18 year-olds overall by 2017 – and a 30% fall in further education lecturers in engineering and manufacturing since 2003.

In order to address these issues and widen the engineering talent pool, despite decreasing population trends, we must tackle the age-old issue of perceptions of engineering and manufacturing. We need a new beginning for a new economy; a new approach for a new generation. We have the opportunity to create a new image for engineering and manufacturing for the next generation – an image married to the 21st century not the 20th, which too often prevails in the classroom.

There is good and bad news in public attitudes. EngineeringUK research shows that as few as 18% of the 11-16 year-olds perceived engineering as a desirable career. However, the general perception of engineering amongst young people has improved (5% in one year). Amongst the general public, it has improved further still, up 19 % in one year. Now more than ever, however, we need to galvanise and increase those improving perceptions to meet the challenges ahead.

This is the very reason why, in March this year, Manchester will host the The Big Bang: UK Young Scientists’ and Engineers’ Fair – a huge annual celebration of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM). The Fair explores the wonders of STEM, seeking to capture the imagination of children at an age where they have their career choices, and indeed their whole lives, ahead of them. We believe The Fair will be the biggest, single celebration of science and engineering in the UK, with more than 15,000 people already registered to attend.

The Big Bang will host some of the biggest names in science entertainment from ‘Brainiac Live’ to ‘Bang Goes The Theory’, bringing science alive with interactive displays and workshops, and the Royal Institution will be reprising it’s famous Christmas lectures.

Alongside the 120 interactive activities and exhibits, The Fair also plays host to the National Science and Engineering Competition, showcasing hundreds of science and engineering projects entered into this year’s competition by 11-18 year-olds. The 2009 UK Young Scientist of the Year was made a Fellow of the Royal Institution, the youngest ever scientist to be recognised in this way.

While The Fair attracts much attention as a science and engineering ‘spectacular’ it remains an initiative with a serious agenda – to tackle the emerging STEM skills gap in the UK job market. As the largest merging of business, industry, STEM institutes, Government and academia in the UK, The Big Bang provides a lasting impact and influence on young people.

The role of business cannot be underestimated and our sponsors will be helping to bring much of the science on display to real-life application. For example, Siemens will demonstrate how they use STEM in their every day businesses to help answer some of the world’s toughest questions around climate change, urbanization, demographic change and globalization. Children will be able to interact with a 4d ultrasound system, work out the energy output of a wind turbine by making their own model and get hands on with the processes included in designing and manufacturing race cars.

Though the road ahead remains challenging and the decisions we face tough, we must show commitment to the industries that will under-pin the prosperity and growth of the next decade. Investing in children will be the key and by inspiring learners at a young age we can ensure that STEM subjects will achieve the representation at career level that UK plc needs. The Big Bang looks to make a start at igniting the interest of a new generation of scientist and engineers and to help build a workforce that can fuel a strong manufacturing sector in the decades to come.