All together now

The Paul Jackson column

Industry and government must co-operate to reinvigorate and grow the UK manufacturing industry

With the elections taking place across Europe putting the economic crisis so clearly back on centre stage, growth is understandably top of the agenda. And it’s impossible not to examine our own economic landscape. A number of meetings with business over the past couple of weeks have brought the imperatives for government into ever-clearer focus for me.

I’ve attended an EngineeringUK Business & Industry event and an All Party Parliamentary Engineering Group lunch and debate at the House of Commons, as well as advised on judging panels for the Business, Innovation and Skills-backed campaign designed to showcase British manufacturing and the rising stars working within it: Make it in Great Britain. Perhaps the most valuable outcome of each has been the opportunity to listen to and bring the cries of business to the government’s ears.

Two issues are abundantly clear: the government and industry share the desire to reinvigorate and grow UK manufacturing; and we have the home-grown talent to realise these ambitions. Great — now let’s close the gap between the two.

Companies tell us they struggle to recruit engineers with the skills that they’re looking for

The government is aware of the contribution that our engineering companies make, yet the wider population has little understanding of the variety of jobs available with the right training and skills.

Companies tell us they struggle to recruit engineers with the skills they’re looking for and that a lack of diversity in the sector remains a major issue.

Above all, there is a strong feeling from the engineering sector that it needs clarity from the government: a clear industrial policy and a steer about the intended direction of travel.

Engineers want to understand exactly what the government expects the economy to look like in five, 10 and 15 years’ time. The implications of a rebalancing of the economy and growth in GDP for engineering must be made explicit.

The focus of the debate in these meetings has been for the government to meet the conditions required to bring more young people into the engineering sector. In order for the government to crack these challenges, some consistent key requirements have emerged:

  • Establish a clear, unequivocal industrial policy that demonstrates commitment to engineering;
  • Address the future shortage of engineering graduates and apprenticeships across all disciplines;
  • Grow the pool of students who are studying physics (as part of triple science) at GCSE level and increase the number studying physics at A level or higher;
  • Return to class-based science and technology practicals and project work to lock in excitement and enthusiasm among young people and update teachers with careers information;
  • Provide better-informed careers information at an earlier age — National Careers Service take note; and
  • Improve dialogue between universities and industry.

The seeds are there. The will of industry to nurture them is there. We have to keep young people excited about engineering. With the right co-ordination from the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, the Department for Education and devolved administrations, I am confident we can grow the necessary number of graduates and apprentices entering the engineering sector. Longer-term thinking is critical.