Keeping pace with the digital revolution

18 Paul JacksonThe Paul Jackson column

We lack the engineers with the necessary skills to stay in step with the opportunities and demands of the digital revolution, says the chief executive of EngineeringUK.

Developments in engineering have a wide impact across the economy, particularly when it comes to digital skills, which link into all business areas. Employers are reliant on digital capabilities and workplaces need to keep pace with continued technological advances, in which the UK plays a leading role on the European stage.

Whatever the impact of leaving the European Union – and EngineeringUK is part of the joint work to provide evidence-based advice to Government to help secure the best possible outcome for the UK and UK engineering – digital skills are essential for the future of the UK economy. Whether it is data management, electronic payments, interactive apps or 3D printing, businesses of all sizes benefit from such developments, but understanding and accessing those technologies can prove challenging, particularly for smaller companies with limited budgets.

Interestingly, Barclays now have a large-scale programme that supports their customers, giving them the opportunity to learn about new technologies, helping to leverage data and innovation. Their Eagle Labs, supported by Digital Eagles, presents an approach to corporate social responsibility that is quite different from much of what we see elsewhere in that it offers its customers access to technologies and facilities that many larger businesses take for granted.

We are on the cusp of a digital manufacturing revolution but – and this is despite a younger generation of digital natives – we lack the engineers with the necessary digital skills. Cyber security is another key area where digital skills aren’t confined to digital industries but are a concern for individuals and industry alike. When it comes to digital, we need to boost skills across the UK. Barclays are looking to reach 1 million users of their digital driving licence by the end of the year and I hope that linking in with the Tomorrow’s Engineers programme will help reach that target.

The recent Shadbolt review looked at computer science degrees and made some very sensible recommendations. One of the major difficulties with the pace of digital and technological advances is the feasibility of integrating the latest developments into undergraduate degrees. There seems to be some consensus among employers I speak to that the most logical way to develop these skills in young workers is via advanced apprenticeships, but that has its own set of challenges, which will only be overcome through industry collaboration.

It is vital for the future health of the UK economy that young people in sufficient numbers develop the digital and engineering skills that employers need. That requires a concerted effort from across the community to work together to ensure those young people understand and are excited by the prospects in engineering.

To that end Tomorrow’s Engineers Week (7-11 November) aims to shine a spotlight on engineering careers in a way that young people, particularly girls, may have never considered before. I hope you and your company will get involved in some way. Could you feature as a media case study or make a short video about your job and sector? Maybe you’d be interested in answering schoolchildren’s questions on how engineers solve problems. We want everyone in engineering to be involved, what will you do?