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Wanted: Engineers to rebuild Britain

Vince Cable’s adviser tells Jim Armitage GCSEs in engineering at all schools would inspire a generation to fill the manufacturing skills gap
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It’s the question that’s dogged policymakers since the bursting of the banking bubble: how to rebuild the non-financial side of the economy. Politicians and the public have lined up behind the idea that we need to re-establish our manufacturing industry, but, after decades of neglect, there simply isn’t the supply of decent engineers.

It’s perhaps the biggest issue bugging our industrialists too, few more than Robin Southwell, chief executive of the aerospace giant EADS UK and a senior adviser on skills to Vince Cable, the Business Secretary. He is bristling with ways to ease the shortage, but has one bold idea that stands out: create a widely available GCSE in engineering that is pushed hard in schools across the country.

“What I am saying is that to get our nation’s children really engaged, engineering should be available in the mainstream curriculum,” he explains. “A GCSE which starts our youngsters understanding the incredible things engineers create, and how we do it, can only be helpful to deal with the skills shortage we have.”

Furthermore, these new GCSEs should be pitched at girls just as much as boys, he says. Women are pitifully under-represented in the engineering workforce, starving the industry of half the population’s creativity and, in Mr Southwell’s mind, making for a less-functional working environment.

There are also far too few girls studying maths and physics at A-level  – crucial to get on to most engineering courses at university. Currently, Mr Southwell says, children get to the age of 16 and 17, when they have to decide what to study at university and they are confronted with these new, largely unfamiliar subjects.  Not just “engineering” but “mechanical,” “civil”, “electronic”, “aerospace” or “chemical” engineering. Little wonder applications are fewer than the industry would like.

The Department for Education says such GCSEs are already available, but Mr Southwell responds: “Yes, but no school I’ve ever heard of does them. This has to be a recognised, mainstream thing, available to all kids in all schools that will excite them and give them the ambition to take the science A-levels they need to take engineering degrees later.”

However, it’s not just the lack of university applications that is causing the skills shortfall. There is also a drastic shortage of engineering places in higher education. Take the aerospace-engineering field: last year there were 2,455 places available, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency. For each of those there was an average of 14 applicants, Mr Southwell says.

As a result, requirements for straight As at A-level , and even a minimum of one A-star are not uncommon for the best courses.

Not only that, but, going by previous years of the aerospace course places, about 40 per cent will have gone to overseas students.

You can’t blame universities for selling a certain amount of places to the highest bidder – and the highest bidders are generally from South-east Asia and the Far East, but it does create a real problem for our  homegrown talent.

Of the remaining 1,500 or so, due to the exceptionally high academic calibre of many, about a third will be snapped up by high-paying consultancy firms and investment banks when they graduate, leaving just 1,000 left.

Mr Southwell says: “We have to ask the question: Is that enough people to feed what is a growth industry? The answer is clearly ‘no’.”

BAE and EADS together employ nearly 35,000 British staff.

He believes there is scope for tripling – yes, tripling – the number of engineering degrees.

“If we as a nation are seeking properly to rebalance the economy, we have to re-evaluate our academia and establish what we need to make engineering the engine room driving our economy.

“That means taking hard choices and redirecting our national resources,” he adds.

With the rebalancing of the economy one of the hottest topics in Westminster these days,  Mr Southwell’s voice is rarely likely to receive such a keen ear as now. We should hope Dr Cable is listening.