A vote for engineering

Viewpoint

A shortage of skilled engineers is the biggest single factor threatening our industry, says NT CADCAM’s MD Chris Horn. Find out what the main political parties are proposing to solve the STEM recruitment crisis.

With just a couple of days before the General Election on May 7, the main political parties are proposing several ideas about the engineering skills shortage that is threatening our industry.

On the surface, there are plenty of statistics to tell us the UK economy recovery is moving in the right direction.  

But behind the stats, there is a worrying discrepancy between the supply and demand for a skilled UK engineering workforce. The UK currently needs 107,000 engineers a year but in 2014 only 82,000 were trained[i]. Engineering and skilled engineers make a vital and valued contribution to the UK economy (27.1% of the UK’s total GDP in 2014) but failing to meet our future engineering workforce requirements could have dire consequences.

Currently thecoalition government has spared science and research investment from the tsunami of public spending cuts. It has provided an extra £400million for university science departments; in the 2015 Budget it committed £60m to six Midlands universities to lead the Energy Research Accelerator; and has encouraged 75,000 more students into STEM apprenticeships through its Your Life campaign.

But to many industry commentators, there is plenty more that still needs to be done. A recent YouGov poll  found that 85 per cent of those questioned wanted the next UK government to promote a stronger UK manufacturing base.

So what needs to happen to ensure engineering employers have the skilled workforce to achieve real economic growth? A culture change in how we view a career in engineering and design must go hand-in-hand with increased support for STEM education.

The biggest challenge facing the engineering sector is people. We have hundreds of jobs in this industry but no one to fill them. Six out of 10 engineering employers fear a shortage of engineers will threaten their business. The issue we have as a nation is how do we make a career in engineering and design an appealing prospect?

In the UK, an engineer is still regarded very much as a manual role, someone who will fix your washing machine. In Europe engineers are respected in the same bracket as lawyers and doctors. The qualifications are as hard and as long as those of an accountant or lawyer – yet becoming an engineer in the UK does not hold the same prestige or kudos and the courses are therefore not as popular.

We’ve had the outdated headlines that ‘UK manufacturing is down the pan’ because there are no jobs in it. But right now that couldn’t be more wrong. In 2014, output from UK car manufacturers was at a seven-year high. Many of our medical customers are starting to onshore manufacturing again, while we are seeing growth in the green energy sector.  It is success stories like this which, according to IMF figures, made the UK the fastest growing “advanced economy” last year.  But the sector cannot grow if we do not have the skilled workforce.

Just this month I met two of our customers in the medical industry. One is already running 25 SOLIDWORKS licences and is looking for a further 12 new people to join them. Another has 50 licenses and is looking to recruit a further 50 people. We need to make engineering attractive as a subject to study, create awareness of what professional engineers actually do and how that links to design and make it a career to aspire to.

CaSE, the Campaign for Science and Engineering, has written to the leader of every political party to set out their manifesto commitments that are relevant to the science and engineering sector. Here’s a quick look at what the main parties are proposing:

CONSERVATIVES

  • Reforming the education system for the next generation of scientists and engineers. Aim to raise the number of A Level maths and physics students by 50% by 2017 and to double the number of undergraduate degrees taken by women in engineering and technology by 2030. Will train 17,500 more maths and physics teachers.
  • Committed £5.9 billion of capital to support ‘scientific distinction’ up to 2021
  • Committed £800million to new research facilities including £95m to take the lead in the next European mission to Mars.
  • £150m to the UK Innovation Investment Fund
  • Financial support to part time engineering students, introducing loans up to £10K for young people who want to undertake postgraduate study.

Read the full response from the Leader of the Conservative Party, David Cameron, at CaSE

LABOUR

  • Implement a long term funding framework for science and innovation
  • Educating the scientists and engineers of the future by introducing a new gold standard Technical Baccalaureate for 16-18 year olds, ensuring all young people study English and Maths to 18 and boost quality apprenticeships by requiring that all firms who get large government contracts offer apprenticeships.
  • Foster innovation and investment in new low carbon technologies by strengthening the Green Investment Bank and setting a 2030 decarbonisation target.
  • Securing the UK’s place in a reformed EU.

Read the full response from the Leader of the Labour Party, Ed Miliband, at CaSE

LIBERAL DEMOCRATS

  • Aim to double innovation and research spending
  • More catapult innovation and technology centres
  • More support for green innovation from the Green Investment Bank
  • Ringfence science budget
  • Encourage primary schools to have one science specialist among the staff
  • Reinstate post-study work visas for STEM graduates

Read the full response from the Leader of the Liberal Democrats, Nick Clegg, at CaSE

GREEN PARTY

  • Increase spending on research to 1% of GDP over the next 10 years
  • Remove undergraduate tuition fees and reintroduce student grants
  • Restore the post-study work visa that allowed non-EU postgraduates to seek work in the UK for two years
  • Bring back schools under local authority control to create curriculum with a strong and scientific and practical component.
  • Support for the development of renewable energy technologies

Read the full response from the Leader of the Green Party, Natalie Bennett, at CaSE

UKIP

  • Abolish tuition fees for STEM degrees for students who work within the UK for the following five years after graduating.
  • Require every primary school to nominate a science leader.
  • Leave the EU and review the wealth of EU regulations and directives that can be unnecessarily restrictive when it comes to research.
  • Introduce a points based immigration system which will give priority to those seeking to enter the UK where we have skill gaps in our economy.

Read the full response from the Leader of UKIP, Nigel Farage, at CaSE

PLAID CYMRU

  • Encourage Welsh universities to get more UK-based research funding and also from the EU’s Horizon 2020 funding.
  • In principle, higher education should be free for all. Provide a subsidy for students resident in Wales who wish to study in Wales. No tuition fees for those taking up STEM subjects.
  • Encourage skilled migrants to come to work in Wales and re-introduce the post-study work visa for two years for students who have qualified from Welsh universities.
  • Increase energy generation from renewable sources with emphasis on tidal and hydro sources.

Read the full response from Plaid Cymru at CaSE

SCOTTISH GOVERNMENT

  • Innovation grants under the SMART:SCOTLAND scheme
  • Improve links between education and industry with a £14m capital investment in Scotland’s Innovation Centres.
  • Promote STEM education and continued funding to the four science centres in Scotland

Read the full response from the Office of the Scottish Chief Scientific Advisor at CaSE