A vital spark

A vital spark

Engineers are vital to the UK economy and STEM subjects are crucial in producing those engineers, as Engineering UK’s chief executive Paul Jackson explains to Peter Jackson.

Engineering is not just a nice-to-have for this country, but, as Paul Jackson points out, it’s essential, not only to our prosperity, but to our survival as a serious economy.

As befits the head of Engineering UK, he has the figures at his fingertips. He says: “At a national level engineering contributes something like 27% of gross domestic product, which is £456bn and that’s quite a chunk for the economy that I don’t think anybody wants to give up.

“The other thing is that for every new skilled engineering job around another two are generated elsewhere in the economy. That multiplier is pretty high which makes it very valuable in an area.’’

He says in the North East, according to the latest 2013 figures, turnover from engineering related business was about £29bn, which was up on the previous 12 months. Engineering UK estimates the number of people employed in engineering enterprises in the region to be around 167,000. This is higher as a percentage, at 28% of all enterprises, than for the rest of the UK at just below 20%.

As well as engineering businesses there are those that use engineering, Jackson explains. “In engineering you often think about making the cars or building the buildings, but actually there are many businesses in the UK that are heavily dependent on engineering skills. In the service sector there are lots of engineering consultancies which are high value consultancies.

“Even in areas like finance they are reliant on IT systems that need some pretty significant engineering skills; in retail where logistics are incredibly important there’s no point having shelves if you can’t work out how to get the products onto the shelves on time.

Companies in food retailing need to save energy on refrigeration or on heating and
air conditioning. It’s amazing when you start to look at the impact of engineering skills on the economy – it’s quite significant.’’

There has to be a constant supply of engineers to work for these enterprises, and helping to ensure that is one of Engineering UK’s roles.

The organisation is an independently funded charity which endeavours to do what it says on the tin and promote engineering in the UK. It provides labour market information and surveys public attitudes to engineering.

It particularly works with young people when they are looking at their future careers, helping them consider how relevant their chosen subjects are to their preferred career options and exciting them about opportunities and raising their aspirations.

For students considering engineering, qualifications in some or all of the STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and maths – are a useful first step.

“It’s easier to come into engineering for people who have studied STEM subjects at school,’’ says Jackson. “Physics is particularly useful, as is maths and whether somebody is going for an apprenticeship or a graduate route or going to a college, those are useful subjects to have behind them.

“At the moment, it’s more difficult to transfer later in life, which is something the industry needs to look at, because if we are going to get the skills we want we need to have young people seeing the value of those STEM skills and the value of coming into the sector and potentially people career switching.’’

As part of its drive to engage young people with engineering and to alert them to the opportunities it can open up for them, Engineering UK launched the Big Bang Fairs on science and engineering careers.

This began with a pilot in 2009 and it is now held annually at the NEC, attracting about 70,000 people.

“That makes it a massive youth event in European terms,’’ says Jackson. “They go to talk about science and engineering careers to meet companies and universities and, if they have done projects at school, to take part in competitions to find the Young Scientist of the Year and Young Engineer of the Year.’’

This has proved so successful that in recent years it has been rolled out to the regions and Engineering UK has been building a network of Big Bang Fairs at a regional level and at a school and college level.

Northumbria University will be hosting Big Bang North East on 7 July, which will include regional competitors for the national Young Science and Young Engineer awards and is expected to attract 2,000 participants.

Teesside University will host another on 1 July, which is expected to attract about 1,500 young people. A third is being held at Conyers School, Stockton on 2 and 3 July and again it is hoped that just under 2,000 will attend.

“This is about working with local people to make them happen,’’ explains Jackson. “We don’t organise the Big Bangs in the North East, they are organised by those universities and those schools by local STEM promotion organisations. We provide support, sometimes a bit of funding and we encourage them to use the brand and make the links with the businesses we work with.’’

Big Bang Fairs held around the country are now attracting more than 100,000 people, beating the numbers for the NEC event. “It’s really great when schools run them for themselves in that everybody gets involved as a whole school activity in organising it, marketing it, in getting local business engaged, it’s great fun and that’s the direction we are going in – more local,’’ he says.

A second programme Engineering UK runs is Tomorrow’s Engineers. He explains: “The difference between where we have previously been, which was taking careers information out to schools alongside activities, is that we are now supporting employers to do that.’’

Engineering UK has a Tomorrow’s Engineers employer support manager, Moira Shaftoe, based in Gateshead in EEF’s offices, working alongside the EEF, pulling together a network of employers already working with schools.

“She’s getting them to share information about which schools they are working with. So, rather than each one just doing their own thing, they can see what everybody else is doing, see which schools are currently not being supported as well and that’s tied in with those attending Big Bang Fairs.’’

Businesses which have so far committed to work with the Tomorrow’s Engineers programme include GE, Caterpillar, Port of Tyne, Hitachi Rail Europe and Ford Aerospace. “One of its strengths is that we are providing support to those companies to work with schools that are close to them and to build this network of careers activity,’ says Jackson.

“Every one of those companies has available to them careers material that we put together, so rather than just hearing about Caterpillar, there’s material that covers a much broader range of engineering.

So if the company they are seeing doesn’t particularly interest a young person in terms of a future career, they’ll see some other things and there’s a website for Tomorrows Engineers that enables them to follow up.’’

The North East was one of two pilot areas for the programme – and it is now being rolled out across the country. “The North East has a strong engineering history and future,’’ says Jackson.

Tomorrow’s Engineers and the Big Bang Fairs are structured to put what young people are learning at school into context. “If you think you are studying maths just so you can fill in a sheet of paper, you’re not seeing how relevant it is to changing the world,’’ he says.

“Maths is about recording what the world looks like and finding a way in which you can change it. We try to give that context, supporting the young people and supporting the teachers and we try to get them fired up about the kind of things they could be involved in in the future, it’s pretty important.’’

He believes that the programmes are helping to turn the tide and to reinstate engineering in popular perception and, again, he has the figures to back this up.

“Public attitudes to engineering have changed dramatically in the past five years. If we ask young people about whether they have ever considered pursuing an engineering career, five years ago, out of women under 19, we’d find one in ten that had ever considered it, that’s now up to one in five. That’s a pretty dramatic change.’’

He argues that public understanding of what engineering is has changed dramatically citing research in which they had asked whether someone would recommend an engineering career. Consistently, over many years, as many as eight out of ten said they would.

That was puzzling, given that insufficient people were coming into the sector. However, they then asked whether people could identify an engineering innovation that had an impact on their lives any time in the previous 50 years.

Five years ago two thirds failed to name anything, whereas now that is reversed with two thirds being able to name an innovation, pointing to a greater awareness of engineering’s importance and what it includes.

“That’s a massive transformation in only five years,’’ he says. He puts this change down to a combination of factors, including the economic crisis which brought into focus the need to have a strong manufacturing sector, and this need to rebalance the economy now has the backing of all the mainstream political parties.

He also believes that Engineering UK has made a difference. “What we do tends to build on what others do, so when we run Big Bang Fairs there are lots of companies and universities involved, so, rather than it just being individual initiatives, we’ve tried to get the whole to be greater than the sum of the parts and that has a much bigger impact and really gets noticed.

That’s been one effect, the sector has started to get its act together by working together.’’

A Big Bang Fair will be taking place at Darlington College on the 18th June.