The fact that Engineering UK’s annual report on the state of the industry was launched at Downing Street served to underline the importance the sector is now being treated with within government, the organisation’s chief executive has said.
Paul Jackson, boss at Engineering UK, said the launch of the Engineering UK 2011 report at Number 11 Downing Street, backed by senior figures from the Treasury and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, was a clear signal that the industry is being looked upon differently in political circles in the wake of the financial crisis.
“The report is independent,” Jackson told PE, “but delivering it within government instead of lobbing it in from the outside marked a tremendous change. It is a wonderful reflection not just on what we’re trying to do as an organisation, but on how attitudes to engineering have developed.
“Of course, we need to hold the government to account, but I think there will be action.”
The report was backed by Mark Prisk, business minister, and Lord James Sassoon, commercial secretary to the Treasury. It highlights how engineering skills shortages could have a detrimental effect on Britain in the race to develop low-carbon energy technologies – where the UK has the potential to become a world leader.
Prisk noted that 500,000 new engineers and technicians would be required over the next six years. It is hoped that a significant proportion of these will be apprentices. The government, having scrapped the Train to Gain programme, intends to create 50,000 apprenticeships from the £150 million saved by axing the scheme.
The global low-carbon market is projected to be worth £4.5 trillion by 2015 and the need for the UK to stake its claim in this growing industry is clear, said the report. But it raised concerns over whether Britain’s lack of skills at the appropriate level could hold industry back. For example, the report said that at least 10% of technicians with science, engineering and technology backgrounds are under-qualified, with level-two skills (equivalent to GCSEs grades A-C, NVQ or BTEC Level 2) rather than level three (A-levels, NVQ or BTEC Level 3).
Jackson said business and the education system needed to work together to ensure the workers the industry requires are produced. Salaries for graduate engineers were good, and the level of unemployment among chartered and more experienced engineers low, but it could be tough for graduates to secure their first position.
“But if you look at the top 20 graduate salaries, seven of them are actually in engineering; chemical engineering is only just behind dentistry and medicine,” he said.
Jackson said public attitudes to engineering still needed to change. “We conducted a survey of 8,000 people that found that the public see engineers as people who will save the planet and save the economy simultaneously – and I think they are right.
“But when asked if they could name an engineering innovation that’s had a real impact on them from the last 50 years, more than six out of ten couldn’t. And that’s pretty horrifying.”