Engineering skills – a call for action

A government adviser has issued a call for action to address the UK’s lack of engineering skills. Professor John Perkins, chief scientific adviser at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, wants government, industry and educators to ‘step up’ to meet the challenge.

In his Review of Engineering Skills, Prof Perkins forecasts increasing demand for engineers. Unless we respond, the UK’s economic recovery will be ‘constrained’, he says.

For Prof Perkins, tackling the issue of girls’ participation requires both diverse role models and inspirational messages about engineering. I’d say the latter is the more important: developing a better understanding in students about what engineering really involves is vital. For example, some research suggests that girls are put off by the idea that STEM careers are solitary. In reality, multi-disciplinary teamwork is crucial in most engineering branches.

More fundamentally, we need to alter the image – perhaps held in many girls’ minds – that engineering is just about repairing oily machine parts. In fact, engineers shape the modern world by solving problems and creating products. Tomorrow’s Engineers website does a great job of explaining just how cutting-edge and all-encompassing engineering is:

The deodorant you used this morning? Chemical engineers will have tested out the product in a laboratory. What about your new tablet computer? Electronics engineers have had a hand in making it. The car you travelled in? Automotive engineers have worked in a team to make it happen.”

Too many STEM initiatives focus only on high-flying graduate role models. But Prof Perkins highlights that the supply of new recruits shouldn’t rely solely on STEM graduates. We need to substantially increase the supply of engineers at both professional and technician levels.

Prof Perkins’ report is comprehensive and wide-ranging. It tackles some of the more deeply entrenched barriers to participation in engineering.

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