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Inspiring the next generation of engineers

The never-ending skills debate has loomed large recently. And The Engineer has examined in detail the pressing need for skilled graduates, the importance of apprenticeships, and industry’s demand for more experienced engineers.

But it’s arguably the need to enthuse school children about a career in engineering that’s the most critical and challenging piece of the skills jigsaw: if we fail to instil an early years understanding and enthusiasm for the engineer’s role, then all other efforts will amount to little more than papering over the cracks.


The Big Bang has grown to be the country’s largest youth event

Unfortunately, difficulties gauging the impact of efforts, which will only bear fruit several years later, can be off-putting for both businesses – who want change now - and politicians, who don’t typically look beyond the end of their parliamentary careers.

”Though it may be hard to measure, industry has no choice but to hurl itself into engagement with children and younger students.

That’s not to say, however, that there aren’t some extremely valuable initiatives out there. The Tomorrow’s Engineers program – which is jointly run by Engineering UK and The Royal Academy of Engineering – does some valuable work with schools, and a number of our larger engineering firms run very popular outreach programs. Meanwhile, the most conspicuous effort of all perhaps, the annual Big Bang Fair, opens its doors tomorrow (13th March).

Now in its sixth year, and therefore approaching the point where early visitors might be entering industry, the Big Bang’s armies of excited school-age visitors and enthusiastic industry exhibitors are positive signs that it has an audience that’s listening and an industry that’s keen to talk.

What’s more, though the future pipeline of engineers may not yet have bubbled to the surface, there are encouraging signs that recent initiatives might be having an impact. For instance, according to a recent survey conducted for the government’s Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) the number of 11 - 14 year olds considering a career in engineering has risen by six per cent. It seems unlikely that this is just a coincidence.

Ultimately, though it may be hard to measure, industry has no choice but to hurl itself into engagement with children and younger students.

And it’s worth remembering that, although the sector frequently beats itself up about salaries and public perceptions, engineering is in fact spectacularly well placed to appeal to young people.

Offering a host of genuine opportunities to do something interesting and exciting, something that can help make the world a better place, it is one of the few professions that can truly and honestly speak to the optimism and idealism of youth.

The Big Bang fair (which is held at the NEC, Birmingham) runs from Thursday 13th March to Sunday 16th. The organiser tells us that for the school days on Thursday and Friday you need to book and it’s best to book for the family weekend but there will be the option to walk up. You can register on the website:

Readers' comments (19)

  • Perhaps Engineers of the future should have some training in business, accounting etc so that they are better prepared to be entrepreneurs or to reach management positions?

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  • @ Timothy

    Why exactly do we need more engineers to be prepared to reach management positions?
    That is the exact opposite of what we need.

    The anecdotal evidence from people here and elsewhere has repeatedly stated that the skills gap has been in part driven by the large numbers of engineers leaving the profession to become managers. Furthermore I have never heard anyone complaining that our economy is likely to suffer due to a shortage of managers.

    Yes we do need our engineers to have commercial awareness, but we definitely do not need our engineers to be managers.

    As for entrepreneurs, generally I have seen that the training is available for those who want it, and the engineers best placed to become entrepreneurs will seek it themselves. Whilst we should be encouraging more young people to follow this route, I believe it would be counter-productive to subject all new students to it.

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  • Telonic is small company in the electronics industry. We have just recruited our 3rd apprentice - he loves working with us and enjoys his day at college.
    Most of us here are ex apprentices and have had fantastic careers in electronic engineering both in the UK and overseas.
    And at 72 this ex apprentice has no wish to retire - I am enjoying being in the electronic engineering industry too much!

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  • If engineers do not understand product costs, design and manufacturing logistics what kind of engineer will they be?

    Business skills are vitally important for engineers, particularly design engineers.

    It's very rare that the engineer gets to solve a problem or address a market need without cost or time constraints. The last time was when the Americans put a man on the moon!

    Therefore some understanding of costs and project management, at least, is necessary to be a successful engineer.

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  • The best way to get kids interested and engaged with engineering is to get them involved with practical projects - at school, in clubs, at home, wherever. The kids will suck in the knowledge they need to do the project, learning fast and learning well. And they get into a way of thinking about things in an engineering 'how could this work' 'how can I make this better' way, and get a 'feel for stuff' which will make them great engineers in the future.

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  • I somewhat disagree with David C. While not all engineers become managers, indeed only a fraction do, it has been the habit wherever I have worked that the promotion is not accompanied by any kind of training or mentoring into the new role. Thus we have a system where you get promoted until you reach your natural level of ability, plus one. I am keen to take my career to the next level and start supervising teams and colleagues but am keenly aware that I may turn out to be hopeless at this, and a part of the reason will be lack of the necessary skills.

    People may not be complaining about a shortage of managers, but they do complain about a shortage of good ones.

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  • I'm a Design Engineer and have been for 25 years. It's a job I enjoy doing, it's what I always wanted to do, and it's a job I'm good at. It's probably one of the positions which carry the highest amounts of responsibility. I design the products which the company sells to generate the revenue to pay the inflated salaries of the overheads who bring very little to the party (assorted managers, accountants, leaders, etc.). I look at these overheads and two things strike me. Firstly, they are all paid more than I am, and secondly in most cases, with an Honours Degree and an MSc, I am better qualified to do their job than they are!

    Despite my experience and qualifiactions, I am not even included in the list of 'professionals' who are authorised to sign a passport photo - a list which included estate agents. This demonstrates the level of 'esteem' in which Engineers are held.

    Until companies realise the value of Engineers to the business as a whole and pay them accordingly, I wouldn't recommend it as a career to anyone who wants a comfortable lifestyle. A realistic salary would help stem the flow of (good) engineers into management, sales, marketing, etc, and would generate interest from youngsters. But then the whole country is run by accountants and Engineers are just expendable overheads, arent they?

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  • @ John Harrison

    Well according to my reading of the rules chartered engineers are allowed to sign passport applications, I have signed a couple for other people in the past. I believe both were acceptable to HMGov.

    This article discusses one means of addressing skills shortage, but pay and perception in the wider public are also important. Until these other two issues are addressed by one means or another many trained engineers will continue to leave the UK or leave the profession at the earliest opportunity.

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  • Absolutely brilliant comment John.
    I have copied it and pinned it to our noticeboard!
    We ARE a forgotten generation, unlike our fathers who had the respect due to them, and were valued by society as a whole.

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  • Engineers engineers engineers that’s all we hear!!!
    It's skilled craftsmen/women, technicians, skilled trades people who are motivated and well paid that we need more of. To turn the (you know the highly intelligent no common sense degree “Engineers”) ideas into practical workable solutions.
    It will not work unless you have one without a multitude of the other!
    I will leave it to you to decide which of the two we need the most of.

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