Children need to be inspired to become engineers so help float their boat

What was Brunel’s direct descendent Morwenna Wilson doing in an origami boat this month? Helping promote engineering as a career, says EngineeringUK boss Paul Jackson, a vital activity for a sector needing 182,000 new recruits a year.

This month saw the release of Engineering UK 2015 The State of Engineering - the detailed analysis of the engineering sector that we have been producing annually for the past sixteen years. The report, which we know is a key reference document for the industry, analyses the engineering industry’s capacity for growth and details engineering in education, training and employment.

What it tells us this year is that Britain is still great at engineering and that the industry continues to make a significant contribution to the economy. At £1.17 trillion, engineering accounts for a quarter (24.9%) of UK turnover and continues to grow (latest figures put annual growth at 6.7%). In fact, turnover is 9% higher than at the start of the recession. Little wonder then that, in his foreword to the report, Vince Cable says ‘a strong British engineering sector is vital to the long term sustainability of our economic recovery’.

"If we are to meet the demand for engineers in the future more needs to be done to inform and inspire young people today and we want every 11-14 year old to have at least one engineering experience with an employer."

Even with 5.4m people employed in engineering we still need more engineers. The projection is that engineering employers will need 1.82 million people likely to need engineering skills in the decade to 2022. Pro rata that’s 182,000 people a year which, at the current rate of supply, means we’re facing a shortfall of 55,000 per year (at technician level and above).

Engineering comprises a range of sectors, each with a vital contribution to make and each with its own challenges. The rail sector, for example, currently contributes £7 billion a year to the UK economy and employs over 85,000 people, which will grow given the potential for freight and passenger traffic to double by 2030. With every new job in engineering generating a further two jobs elsewhere in the economy that growth will have wider benefit across the economy.

Our new commissioned research undertaken by the Centre for Economics and Business Research shows that in 2014, the engineering sector contributed an estimated £455.6 billion (27.1%) of the total UK GDP. It also shows that filling the demand for new engineering jobs will generate an additional £27 billion per year from 2022 for the UK economy. To give you an idea of what such a large figure means, that’s equivalent to building 1,800 schools or 110 hospitals. It clear that there is much to gain, but there is also much to do.  

The number of students in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) is increasing but far too slowly. If we are to meet the needs of the industry we need to double the number of engineering apprentices and graduates entering the industry. We’ll also need to see a doubling of the number of young people studying GCSE physics as part of triple science and a growth in the number of students studying physics A level (or equivalent) to equal that of maths. This must have a particular focus on increasing the take-up and progression by girls, particularly post GCSE.

Also this month, awarding-winning engineer (and direct descendent of Isambard Kingdom Brunel), Morwenna Wilson) launched the Good Ship Big Bang as part of our promotion for The Big Bang Fair in March. She was helped by students from Tottenham UTC, who not only enjoyed the opportunity to launch a giant origami boat, but were interested to hear about the opportunities engineering offers. That was a one off PR stunt but was nonetheless a moment of inspiration for the young people there. The Fair itself offers around 75,000 young people the chance to see for themselves where science and engineering could take them.

If we are to meet the demand for engineers in the future more needs to be done to inform and inspire young people today and we want every 11-14 year old to have at least one engineering experience with an employer. This inspiration needs to highlight to young people and their parents the high value placed on STEM skills and promote the huge range of engineering careers available. There also needs to be more support for the teachers and careers advisors delivering careers information. They need to understand the range of modern scientific, technological and engineering career paths, (including the diverse vocational/technician roles) so that in turn they can advise and inspire the young people who look to them for guidance.

The Tomorrow’s Engineers programme sees employers and PEIs working together to reach even more schools with careers information, inspiration and outreach activity on a national scale. Research shows this coordinated approach triples the impact of such outreach and with £27 billion at stake we need to do everything we can to ensure the talent pipeline.

Paul Jackson is Chief Executive of EngineeringUK