The UK needs a better careers advice service to tackle the widening engineering skills gap, according to delegates speaking at the Royal Academy of Engineering yesterday.

Young people aged as young as 10 or 11 are making curriculum choices that can restrict their capacity to become engineers, said Chris Humphries of the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES) at the launch of BAE Systems’ latest skills review.

‘We actually give better advice to people buying a new television set in this country than we do to young people seeking to make their first career step,’ added Humphries. ‘The best estimate according to reliable information services is that television buyers are better off by a factor of five to one.’

These thoughts were echoed by BAE Systems’ chairman, Dick Olver, as he launched an effort to bring the different elements of the company’s education strategy under a single banner, entitled ‘Skills 2020’.

‘We need a career adviser in every school who actually understands what the opportunities are on the back side of the STEM [science, technology, engineering or mathematics] skills,’ he said.

‘If the careers adviser doesn’t have the life experience that allows them to explain with interest and passion what’s on the back side of doing this work, then we’re lost.’

Philip Greenish, chief executive officer of the Royal Academy of Engineering, said that there needs to be a better focus on further education to help young people choose which of the 3,300 existing engineering qualifications would be right for them.

Steve Holliday, chief executive at National Grid, added that there was a need to ‘organise and co-ordinate so that every secondary school in this country has a business contact that can go in and talk about engineering and science’.

Around 58 per cent of net new jobs predicted to appear in the economy between 2007 and 2017 will require employees with STEM skills, equal to 29 per cent of total new and replacement jobs, according to UKCES data.

STEM skills are key to 17 out of 23 priority occupational areas deemed to have priority skill needs, and 26 out of 38 professions where non-European migrants are needed to fill skill shortages are STEM related.

The Conservative party promised before the election to provide expert careers advice in every secondary school and set up a new adult careers service. However, local authorities have already begun to make cuts in existing careers advice budgets.

BAE Systems spent £50m last year on skills and education, including partnerships with schools and universities and its backing of the Big Bang science fair.

Although BAE Systems’ review, carried out by Cambridge University’s Institute for Manufacturing, has not led to any new educational programmes, the company is hoping to increase the communication of skills-related issues across its work with government and schools.

Olver called on companies, professional institutions and the government to invest more in the UK’s engineering and manufacturing base.

‘Without action, the UK’s widening skills gap will have become an irreversible gulf… It is essential that companies continue to invest in the skills of their people.’

Click here to read how a shake-up in careers advice could encourage the engineers of the future.