Roads to the future

The Paul Jackson blog

The recent infrastructure announcements underline the UK’s need for skilled engineers, and the community needs to work together to drive their creation

The final days of last month brought us ‘Black Friday’, an American import that sent thousands of bargain hunters to the high street and signified a welcome boon for the retail sector as Christmas shopping began in earnest. Less likely to make the front pages, but for  even greater economic potential, were a number of significant moments for engineering.

Launching Tomorrow’s Engineers activity in Scotland, Erik Bonino, Chairman of Shell UK, said ‘Scotland is famous across the globe as a pioneer of innovation. The North Sea is one example of an economic success that was only made possible through the innovation and ingenuity of scientists and engineers. But the on-going shortage of technical skills risks jeopardising the country’s success.’ This highlights the real need for fresh blood in the industry to meet both the challenges of North Sea extraction and decommissioning, even in centres of engineering excellence.

With £250 billion earmarked for decommissioning, this time in nuclear, the skills, capabilities and capacity required are significant. Add to that the fact that the sector anticipates a peak in demand for new build in 2024 and it’s clear that there will be hugely increased demand for engineering professionals. Our research to be published next month will show that the demand for workers by engineering employers is expected to continue to outstrip the UK supply by a sizable margin.

November saw Unite launch its charter for engineering excellence where it called for the Government to do more to support engineering and called for an ‘engineered in Britain, bought in Britain’ policy. We believe in the need for a strong, coherent strategy to boost UK engineering.

At this year’s CBI conference there was much talk about infrastructure and the industry will no doubt welcome the investment in the road improvement programme outlined by David Cameron. Nick Clegg talked of ‘wholesale renewal in infrastructure’ and Ed Miliband affirmed Labour’s intention to create an infrastructure commission to facilitate forward planning. While individual projects will be judged on their own merit, with so much rail and road development planned it’s more important than ever to ensure, and indeed improve, the flow of skilled professionals into the workforce.

For each project, whatever its size and scale, the industry needs skilled engineers to ensure successful delivery. Politicians have been talking about projects and investment, all of which need real people to deliver them. During his recent visit to Crossrail, Ed Miliband highlighted the shortfall of engineering skills across the sector and outlined a strong desire to create an extra 400,000 engineers by 2020.

He also flagged the gender imbalance across engineering calling it a matter of ‘national embarrassment’ that the UK has the lowest proportion of women in engineering of any European country. We know that the drive to see more women in engineering needs to start at school, which is why we focus so much of our energy on inspiring young people, especially girls, to continue with STEM subjects to keep their future career options as broad as possible.

It’s important, therefore, that the engineering community continues to work together to drive the creation of the next generation of engineers –  a feeling that was shared when representatives from a range of professional engineering institutes and employers came together at the Royal Academy of Engineering for the yearly Engineering the Future plenary. Engineering can’t hold flash sales, but the UK can build a talent pipeline that will enable to it to deliver on the promise of the next few decades.