Peter Luff MP: Training more engineers should become a national priority
On the day Peter Luff tables a bill with measures intended to inspire a new generation of engineers and scientist, he explains the background to his concerns. Peter Luff is Member of Parliament for Mid Worcestershire; Defence Equipment Minister (2010-2012) and Chairman of the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee (2005-2010). Follow Peter on Twitter.
The Conservative Party has always faced up to the big challenges to our prosperity and security. That’s why we’re taking robust action on the biggest risk to the UK’s prosperity and security, the deficit. But what’s the second biggest risk? I say it’s the shortage of young engineers and scientists, and we’re not doing enough yet to address it.
During my five years as Chairman of the Business, Innovation and Skills select committee in the last Parliament, and during my two-and-and-half years as a defence minister in this one, the overriding concern I heard expressed time and time again by manufacturing and technology companies was that there just weren’t enough engineers – apprentices and graduates – to meet demand.
Even if it were true that we didn’t make anything anymore in the UK – which it isn’t – we would still need engineers to help us buy things from the rest of the world. Unless you know how something works, you can’t be sure you’ve bought the right thing. And in defence in particular, you often have to have UK nationals doing the work on national security grounds. To take just the most obvious example, the nuclear deterrent can’t rely on foreign engineering skills.
In the 70s, 80s and 90s, engineering got a pretty bad press. The news was dominated by strikes and job losses and it’s hardly surprising that the legacy of that time has had its impact on young people. But now engineering is one of the best paid and most secure careers a young person can choose.
There is a particular scandal with girls and engineering. However you measure the participation rate by girls in engineering it comes out around 10 or 12% at best - the lowest in the EU. Twenty seventh out of twenty seven. And when Croatia joins, it will be twenty eighth out of twenty eight.
There’s nothing inevitable about this – I know of at least one larger high-technology company that succeeds in winning an intake of engineers that’s fifty per cent female. If their success could be replicated more widely, our skills problem would be solved. We need to demonstrate to girls that engineering is no longer about oily rags but problem solving. Equal access to information on the modern reality of engineering and science at school would help achieve this.
For years now I’ve believed we need to do something to improve the quality of careers advice in schools – and to aim the advice at a much younger age group. Unless pupils in years 6 and 7 (10, 11 and 12 year olds) realise the importance of doing well in maths and physics, they will never be able to purse engineering or science careers.
Of course, we’ve been talking about this for years. But we can’t be complacent. We are, as David Cameron has said, in a global race. China is moving up the value chain. Our place as one of the largest manufacturing nations on the planet (which we still are) is threatened. Our world–class civil engineering consultancies too will find themselves challenged without a pool of talent. And our resilience and security over a wide range of threats - from food and water to cyber and defence - depend on getting more engineers.
That’s why I’ve decided to devote much of the two years that remain to me in Parliament to this issue – and to concentrate on something I might actually achieve. The whole broad canvass of skills policy is too broad and as one of the country’s leading engineers put it to me, “You don’t want to try boiling the ocean”.
What I am trying to do is to create an increased demand from young people – to make them more enthusiastic about pursuing STEM subjects and carers. To seek to inspire them about the possibilities in engineering, science and technology.
On February 13th I will introduce a Ten Minute Rule bill in the Commons that begins a two-year campaign. The bill aims to make it more likely that young people – and especially girls – will be exposed to the excitement that is modern engineering so that more of them are inspired to take up careers in these subjects.
My bill is a first statement of the sort of things I believe need to be done. It will build on existing schemes – especially three really effective ones – The Big Bang Fair (the largest celebration of science, technology, engineering and maths for young people in the UK), Tomorrow’s Engineers (a one stop shop for information and resources about the careers available in engineering) and the STEM Directories (a website connecting teachers with the wide range of activities in the UK that can help enhance their teaching in science, engineering and maths).
In a nutshell, the Bill obliges schools – at Key Stage Two and above – to ensure their pupils have some exposure to the opportunities that exist - and they are very broad opportunities indeed, from heavy construction to light engineering, from defence to medicine, from the environment to agriculture.
They will be helped in this by a duty on Local Enterprise Partnerships to support them and on government to ensure the existing databases are maintained.
I will also be removing all the barriers to talented young professional from going into schools to teach shortage subjects like physics and maths. These young professionals, with a bit of assistance, would make more engaging teachers of these subjects – more so than fully qualified teachers from other disciplines – and they can say why the subjects matter with real authority too.
I’m confident I’m going with the grain of opinion and with the political mood. Rebalancing the economy demands that we attract more of our brightest and best into STEM careers, whether at apprentice or graduate level.
If I succeed, then the system will have to respond with more teachers, more places in FE and HE institutions, different courses and so on. But that is the supply side. First let’s help more young people to understand the great careers that are available. Our safety and our welfare depend on it.