Engineering profession calls on government to prepare for a digital future

Industrial strategy should begin at primary school, according to a new report published today that sets out the collected views of the UK engineering profession on the government’s industrial strategy green paper. The report, Engineering an economy that works for all, calls on government to extend the measures proposed in its industrial strategy to primary and secondary schools, and to take more decisive action to equip young people with the skills critical to future industries.

Engineering accounts for 20% of the UK’s gross value added (GVA), but faces a significant skills crisis that threatens its future growth and sustainability.

The decision to leave the EU also has direct ramifications on the availability of engineering skills. In research that informed the report, 60% of engineers reported that their organisations were currently ’somewhat’, ‘very’ or ‘highly’ dependent on recruiting employees from outside of the EU. The report argues that the government will not be able to deliver on the industrial strategy’s vision of an advanced, globally competitive economy without substantial changes to teaching, qualifications, and curricula.

Engineering an economy that works for all represents a collaboration of all 38 professional engineering organisations, led by the Royal Academy of Engineering, and has benefited from an unprecedented level of engagement by the engineering community. The report team collected information through an online survey with nearly 1,300 respondents and a series of 10 workshops, gathering evidence in the devolved nations and English regions, and making substantial recommendations on skills, research and innovation and infrastructure.

It argues that to keep pace with the demands of an advanced 21st century economy, the definition of basic skills needs to be broadened to include digital capabilities. A comprehensive programme of upskilling also needs to be developed in partnership with industry and training providers to ensure the UK workforce at all levels, in the public and private sector and in all parts of the UK, has the skills needed to shape and participate in the industries of tomorrow.

Within the engineering profession there are serious concerns about GCSE Computer Science being the only computing GCSE available to students. For UK engineering to thrive it argues that GCSE qualifications that cover the whole computing curriculum as well as computer science are needed, to prevent the majority of young people leaving compulsory education at age 16 without any formal computing qualification. It recommends that a general computing GCSE is introduced alongside GCSE Computer Science.

The report found that the engineering community welcomes the reform of Design and Technology in schools, but highlights the severe decline in its uptake as a real risk to the UK’s global dominance in design. Teacher shortages, increasing costs of provision and a lack of status in school accountability measures means that schools are cutting back on provision. To advance the UK’s high-value design and engineering skills – including in robotics, electronics and additive manufacturing – it calls for the inclusion of Design and Technology in the English Baccalaureate accountability measure on schools.

The capacity to deliver much-needed STEM and D&T skills must be improved: teacher shortages in STEM subjects in schools should be addressed as a matter of urgency through new measures such as an increase in the initial teacher education bursary for Design and Technology in line with mathematics, physics and computing. The report recommends that government significantly increase funding for subject-specific teacher CPD for primary and secondary school teachers to ensure that all teachers undertake this alongside general professional development and training, making annual training compulsory and monitored through Ofsted inspections.

The profession also welcomed the proposal of a new careers strategy with proper employer engagement, but called for careers teaching to be a limiting judgement in the Ofsted Accountability Framework. It identified a real need for dedicated, industry-informed careers advisers, trained to an appropriate level, with up-to-date knowledge of local labour market needs and engineering and technical careers.

Alongside these improvements, much greater, targeted focus is needed on promoting STEM subjects and engineering careers to under-represented groups (including girls, people from BAME communities and those from lower socio-economic backgrounds) to fully unlock the talent potential in the UK.

The Further Education sector also needs additional, long-term investment, as well as incentives to promote provision of high-cost subjects such as engineering. Increasing the number of people with higher level technical skills (levels 4 and 5) must be a priority; while Institutes of Technology will help, wider national provision is also needed.

In Higher Education, the report recommends that universities provide all students and academic staff in appropriate subjects with wider business skills and IP awareness to improve their ability to undertake knowledge exchange activities and help companies to generate and absorb innovation. Increased mobility between business and academia is also identified as vital.

Dr Rhys Morgan, Director of Engineering and Education at the Royal Academy of Engineering, says:

“The engineering community welcomes that the Green Paper considers large parts of the education pipeline, from basic skills through to post-16 options, technician and professional engineering education, re-skilling and up-skilling the workforce and lifelong learning. But to be a coherent and long-term strategy for the UK, the industrial strategy must reach back further into primary and secondary education, ensuring that the right incentives, inspection regimes and funding models for schools are in place. The recommendations in Engineering an economy that works for all are critical if we are to develop interest and attainment from a young age in key subjects that will support the nation’s skills needs, and fulfil the government’s vision of an advanced and globally competitive economy.”