Attitudes to manufacturing are gradually changing in the UK. It’s something we’re now being told regularly by people in industry. Whether it’s the understanding that the country needs to focus more on making things and less on financial services; the increasing popularity of television programmes about science and technology; or the series of high-profile major engineering projects currently underway in the UK at the moment; there definitely seems to be a feeling that we haven’t seen for quite a long time.
The general public is coming around to the idea that engineering and technology are interesting, valuable things, rather than old-fashioned and dirty, and even politicians seem to be queuing up to say how keen they are to support engineering and innovation in the UK. There are even signs of some joined-up policy thinking in the sector.
And yet we still have a skills gap. It’s not just the UK — we’ve spoken to German, Dutch, French and Scandinavian engineers over the past few months and they’ve mostly told us the same story. There was a lull in engineering recruitment and in the number of students applying for technology courses that lasted several decades, the average age of engineers is going up, and there still aren’t enough new engineers entering the profession to counter the number that are going to be leaving as they reach retirement. Meanwhile, the emerging Asian economies are training engineers as fast as they can.
So what still needs to be done in the UK? Talking to senior engineers at the recent MACH show and in interviews recently, a similar message seems to be coming across. Children have always been keen on the idea of engineering; and over the past decade, parents have come around to the idea that the sector represents a good place for their children to seek employment. The siren call of the City and the world of finance has lost much of its brazen lustre over the last few years. The people that still need to be convinced are the teachers.
It seems that when it comes to advice about careers and how school subjects relate to them, teachers are poorly prepared to guide students into engineering. Frequently we’re told that teachers don’t appreciate what a career in engineering might need; that they don’t understand what engineers do; and they aren’t convinced it’s a worthwhile career choice.
Of course, teachers have enough on their plates with teaching to have to worry overmuch about careers advice. But the answer seems to be fairly obvious: engineering companies have to make more of an attempt to connect with schools. All sorts of possibilities spring to mind, from helping to design curriculums, getting involved with training careers advisors, and sponsoring schools visits. Of course, many companies already get involved in this sort of event, but it needs to become a regular part of every major company and institution’s annual routine, whichever sector they’re involved in and whatever projects they’re currently working on.
Britain has no shortage of interesting, exciting engineering sectors that can attract people’s attention. You can work on racing cars in the most glamorous sport in the world. You can go out of this world, building satellites and space probes. You can build graceful bridges and soaring skyscrapers. You can work around the world. It’s not difficult to make engineering exciting. What’s a bit more challenging is to embed it into the everyday and make sure that tomorrow’s students and educators understand how what they learn day to day relates to the world around them.
It’s the most difficult job in the world, they say. But engineers are used to difficult jobs. Let’s help build people.