Comment: Skills must be at the heart of industrial strategy

Without an improved talent pipeline we risk being unable to keep up with the pace of technological change writes Engineering UK Chief Executive Paul Jackson

Last month we were looking at submissions to the industrial strategy and just four weeks on it’s all about election strategy. It is time to make sure one of them, the industrial one, doesn’t get lost in the rhetoric of the other.

The next government needs to deliver an industrial strategy that breaks down barriers and sees real alignment of policy, industry and education. We are heading for an industrial revolution in manufacturing and a revolution in the way we organise and live our lives. The success of those developments and all their future applications is dependent on strong engineering skills. To be innovation leaders rather than followers we need to build on our engineering talent.

I hope that post-Brexit Britain will continue to welcome talented professionals from abroad, not least because there is not currently the capacity or funding within the education system to harness the undoubted talent of the future workforce. But, we are selling short a generation of home grown talent if we don’t do all we can to unlock the opportunities ahead of us and give them access to the highly paid, skilled jobs that will drive the transformation.

Industry 4.0 will be as transformative as previous industrial revolutions and will spawn new industries and opportunities. It will, however, look very different. Data exchange and connectivity are not just buzzwords but the building blocks of a new way of doing things. As our phones, homes and working practices become smarter we are ever more reliant on the digital applications of those exchanges and connections. But, without an improved talent pipeline we risk being unable to keep up with the pace of change and falling behind as a nation and an economy.

A couple of recent discussions have struck on how much engineering is already changing. Talking with a senior exec from an energy company I heard about how the engineering function was being developed along systems integration lines rather than the disciplines that we all recognise from the 19th Century. A visit to the Centre for Advanced Biomedical Imaging at UCL reinforced that view. Brilliant work is going on with all sorts of imaging and masses of data processing and the Centre is part of the medical faculty rather than engineering. Why? Because it is closer to the customer so clinical trials at University College Hospital can be undertaken more easily. Systems, data, customers. They’re all important.

This integration in application will increasingly need to be reflected in the integration of various aspects of engineering technology. The next generation will develop and deliver that integration and that starts with science, technology, engineering and maths subjects at school. We owe it to the engineering workforce of the future to ensure that as young people today they are fully supported in understanding and developing the skills they’ll need to be part of changing the world in which we live.

Wherever they hear about future opportunities in engineering and technology, be it from professional bodies, industry, teachers or the media, they need clear and consistent message – studying science and maths keeps your options open. That’s how we’ll inspire tomorrow’s engineers.

Paul Jackson is chief executive of Engineering UK