Sir Anthony Cleaver, chair of the Engineering and Technology Board, is drawing on his long and varied career to inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers. Stuart Nathan reports.

At first sight Sir Anthony Cleaver seems an unlikely figure to be leading the fight to bring the UK’s youngsters flocking to engineering and technology.

Not exactly young himself and sporting a pinstriped suit, Cleaver looks every inch the captain of industry he was before joining the Engineering and Technology Board as chairman.

But wait. As he welcomes me to his office his trousers ride up to reveal a flash of bright-red sock, the classic sign of the establishment figure unafraid of some maverick thinking. And that is just what Cleaver believes is needed in the face of some alarming demographic trends.

‘The practical solutions to all the world’s biggest problems will come from engineers,’ he said. ‘But if you look at the UK in 10 years’ time, there will be 16 per cent fewer 16-year-olds than there are now. With that demographic decline, we’re going to have to broaden our base as much as possible, and that means doing all we can to promote the role of engineering and technology.’

Cleaver has been chair of the ETB for just over a year and he takes the board’s job of attracting people into engineering seriously. He has seen a great deal of the technology world in his long and distinguished career. He rose to chief executive and chairman of IBM after 30 years with the company, serving as chairman of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority and of the Medical Research Council.

His new project is the launch of the first UK Young Scientists and Engineers Fair, a three-day event in March to be called The Big Bang.

Taking over the cavernous Queen Elizabeth Conference Centre, alongside Westminster Abbey, the event could not have a more prominent location.

For Cleaver it symbolises the importance of science, technology and engineering. ‘We want to raise people’s interest in the area, primarily the students who will be attending, but we also want careers advisers, parents and teachers to understand the excitement of engineering, and the opportunities for students going into that area.’

At the event’s centre is a national science competition, the first of its kind, and one of the recommendations of former science minister Lord Sainsbury’s report on science and innovation policy in the UK, Race to the Top. ‘There have been competitions before, but not a national one, which is high-profile,’ said Cleaver.

The competition, open to students aged 13 to 19, will identify a Young Scientist and Young Technologist of the Year. Each winner will receive £5,000 and act as an ambassador for ‘youth science’ over the year.

The competition is modelled on one that has been running in the Republic of Ireland for more than 40 years, said Cleaver. ‘They have 500 stands there, with a project on each, and the schools all incorporate it into their timetables,’ he said. ‘They have four categories, including biosciences and engineering sciences, and each category has several age groups and both individual and team sub-sections.’

The Big Bang competition will showcase 200 projects, but Cleaver sees it as an ongoing project. ‘My sights are set on 2010, because to be effective it needs to be an annual competition. If 500 entries is the right amount for Ireland, we need as many, if not more, for the whole UK.

‘We’re starting with the 13-19 age group, but I think it needs to go down to primary level, because there’s a lot of evidence that children start to become interested in these things by the time they’re eight, and we should encourage and celebrate that.’

Future competitions could include a regional element, again following Ireland’s example of local heats feeding into a national final. ‘A logical way of doing that would be to talk to the regional development authorities,’ said Cleaver. ‘More doors to knock on.’

Encouraging interest in science and technology is one of the ETB’s primary purposes, alongside validating the qualifications of professional engineers, and to do this it needs to involve employers, associations and academia. All of these are involved in the Big Bang event, with BAE Systems and Shell the two largest sponsors.

Cleaver is conscious of the difficulties of having an arms manufacturer and one of the archetypal Big Oil companies, often seen as the darker side of engineering, so closely associated with the event. ‘The challenge for industry in general — and I saw it in spades in the nuclear sector — is that these industries have often been secretive, and that causes mistrust,’ he said. ‘The only answer is to be as open and transparent as possible.’

BAE Systems and Shell are two of the largest engineering employers in the country, he added, and it was therefore common sense to get them involved. ‘But for 2010, I would like to have four main sponsors rather than two, and get someone from the digital space and someone from the pharma and biosciences area. I’d like to see this as being genuinely representative of the span of the industry in the UK.’

The fair surrounding the competition will provide interactive demonstrations for its young visitors, rather than the static displays familiar to academic conferences and industrial exhibitions. ‘We have people from the Science and Natural History Museums on our groups,’ said Cleaver. ‘And around 70 demonstrations from different organisations and firms are locked in, with more to come.’

While the Big Bang aims to encourage schoolchildren into technical professions, Cleaver is also concerned with how to best prepare them for their future careers. ‘University applications for science and technology subjects have risen by seven per cent over the past few years, and that’s encouraging, and at the graduate level it has held pretty steady at 20,000 a year.’ But numbers are not the only issue. ‘Employers are becoming more demanding of the skills graduates have; it’s not a criticism of them or of the work the graduates have put in, but they want more in terms of teamworking, communication skills, project management and entrepreneurship.’

Cleaver believes the competition could help address this and harks back to his visit to the Dublin Science Fair, where three 12-year-olds impressed him with an impromptu joint presentation. ‘Quite apart from the technical side of what they’d done, into which they’d put a great deal of work, they learned how to work together and how to present ideas to people, even strangers who were somewhat older,’ he said. ‘These things are very valuable, and one of the areas where I think the ETB needs to do more is to encourage activities in schools which include presentations.’

Although graduates are often seen as the main lifeblood of the profession, Cleaver said the main skills gap is for technicians, emerging from further education (FE) colleges rather than universities. ‘One of the concerns is that the completion rate is pretty poor,’ he said. ‘Only 60 per cent of people who go into FE come out with a qualification. There’s a concern about whether FE is giving students a proper understanding of modern engineering as opposed to more traditional methods, which might be outdated, whether the linkages between colleges and employers are good enough, and if FE is managing to enthuse people about the careers they are training for.’

One way the ETB is encouraging links is to suggest that large employers running training courses for, say, 20 people, offer two places to a local college, he said. The Nuffield Foundation, a large UK charity focusing on science education, is also offering bursaries for FE students to spend a month with an engineering SME, as smaller firms often have problems accommodating trainees, said Cleaver.

He is optimistic about recent trends in the technological sectors and thinks the UK is better placed to ride out the recession than in previous years. ‘We’ve done rather better in manufacturing recently than is often thought. Certainly we’ve lost the very high volume plants, but if you look at economics that was almost inevitable, and even China is going to have to start looking over its shoulder at Vietnam and Cambodia soon. But in the specialised areas, we’ve started to compete very well.’

The decline in sterling could also help, he said. ‘It gives our firms a shop window, an opportunity to go out and present their goods to people while our prices are relatively low. Of course, the trick then is to maintain the interest and keep the orders coming in when the exchange rate swings back again.’

It is an encouraging view. ‘I started as a systems engineer,’ said Cleaver, ‘but I also grew up in marketing, so I tend to think the glass is half full. I always see the opportunities in these situations.