A cheer for ‘The Year of the Engineer’

The Paul Jackson blog

The chief executive of EngineeringUK was encouraged by some of the messages coming out of the recent Conservative Party conference

‘We should recognise what brilliant engineers we have in this country’. Who said this recently? Probably most of us, but it was actually Secretary of State for Transport, Patrick McLoughlin, at the Conservative Party Conference. He went on to say ‘I am immensely proud of what they achieve. And so in 2018 – when Crossrail is complete – I want us to do something special. A year of the engineer – to excite a new generation of Brunels, Stephensons and Telfords.”

Patrick McLoughlin highlighted engineering at the recent Tory party conference

As we prepare for the second Tomorrow’s Engineers Week (3-7 November), which will celebrate everyday engineering heroes and bring together employers and young people in activities to inspire the next generation of engineering talent, I rather like his idea. While I’m inclined to use more recent examples to inspire young people, I would certainly welcome a year devoted to celebrating engineering achievement, highlighting innovation and promoting the opportunities within the industry. And who knows? By 2018, in addition to Crossrail, we may even have a plan for extra runway capacity in the south east, progress on HS2 and more.

”In 2018 – when Crossrail is complete – I want us to do something special. A year of the engineer – to excite a new generation of Brunels, Stephensons and Telfords

Patrick McLoughlin, Secretary of State for transport

While the talk of a year of engineering was unexpected it certainly wasn’t out of place given the status science and engineering had across the party conferences. The fringe programmes offered a number of interesting sessions covering science and engineering, though as a community we could be more co-ordinated to avoid programme clashes. One discussion around the financing of major engineering projects, particularly infrastructure projects, highlighted the impact of the decline of corporate pension funds. The trend towards individual pensions means that fewer projects can be funded from pension pots leading to investment being sought from outside the UK.

It was encouraging to hear Nicky Morgan, Secretary of State for Education, talk about the importance of careers advice. The assessment that accurate careers advice is a ‘vital part of our long-term economic plan’ chimes with my long-held view that careers advice has to reflect the reality of the industry today and be presented in a relevant and accessible way. I firmly believe that linking schools with employers is key to unlocking future potential, not least because it gives a real context to what young people are learning at school.

”I firmly believe that linking schools with employers is key to unlocking future potential

Good careers advice must also recognise and promote different routes into the industry, which, of course, includes apprenticeships. Apprenticeships featured strongly during conference season, almost competitively so. Ed Miliband wants as many young people leaving school to do an apprenticeship as go to university and the Conservatives want to create 3 million apprenticeship places. Labour are keen to establish a quid pro quo relationship with employers who want to bring in skills from outside the EU or who want a major government contract – they’ll need to provide apprenticeships.

There’s no doubt that the commitment to boost apprenticeship numbers is a good thing, but it can’t just be about making up the numbers. We need them in the right place and at the right level. A million lower level apprentices in fast food outlets are not going to drive economic growth or rebalance the economy. I’d much rather we saw 100,000 higher level apprentice engineers each year and shape the future of our industry that way. At the very least we need to double the number of engineering related apprentices.

There’s been a bit of a spotlight on the sector over the past few weeks and it’s been good that engineering has had a high status during this time. We need to build on this. I have every confidence that Tomorrow’s Engineers Week will help inspire future engineers but we need to do even more if we’re going to get the numbers of graduates and apprentices we need coming into the sector. In the run up to the general election next year, the engineering community has the opportunity to shape the policy of the future and contribute massively to economic prosperity. We mustn’t let that opportunity pass us by.