Margareta Pagano: Engineering a solution to our acute skills shortage

Schools are in need of an urgent reminder that they should be promoting to both sexes a career that is thrilling, secure, well-paid – and understaffed

My memories of physics classes at school are of us chasing each other around the lab benches, competing to see who got the biggest flames out of the Bunsen burners and who could burn who the most. For his part, our poor teacher – called Mr Benson and nicknamed Basher Benson – spent his time running after us, flicking the rubber tubing of the burners across the wrists of the troublemakers. His lashes never caught me but it was still a painful experience and, to my eternal shame, I just scraped an O-level.

Luckily, I married a man who is a brilliant physicist and who still patiently explains to me how the world spins around. It's why I've been obsessive about encouraging our children – two boys and two girls – to study physics and maths. Something rubbed off; three did it at A-level, and one studied for a PhD. What strikes me most about the way they were taught is how the syllabus is far more relevant to their daily lives – and more fun – than in my day, whether it's learning how MRSI scans work or why microwaves heat.

So I nearly fell off my chair when Vince Cable said in his speech to the Engineering Employers Federation's annual dinner last week that half the state co-education schools in Britain don't have a single girl pupil studying physics at A-level. It's one of those shocking facts that you have to say out loud a few times for the full enormity to sink in. In fact, I had to ask the Business Secretary if he had got his numbers wrong. But Mr Cable said they were hot from the Institute of Physics, which also reports that only 6,500 girls studied physics in 2012 – unchanged from five years ago.

Boys aren't much better; only 24,000 of them studied physics at A-level this year. It gets worse. A recent survey showed that only 47 per cent of teachers thought engineering to be a desirable career while a fifth thought it to be undesirable. What planet are they on? Where have they been if they don't know that engineering today is one the most thrilling, secure and well-paid (median salary second only to medicine, and higher than law) of all careers.

With attitudes like this, its no wonder the UK faces a chronic shortfall in engineers, and must double the number of professionals over the next decade to fill the jobs forecast. We can't radically increase the supply of engineers without raising the numbers studying physics, yet in many schools teenagers are allowed to rule out the subject at 13, an age when many haven't had the chance to know about its full potential.

It's also pretty pointless when politicians, including Mr Cable, argue for more infrastructure investment to kick-start the economy if we don't have enough home-grown skilled professionals to design such projects.

Engineering needs a fundamental makeover and switch in perception to show it is every bit as attractive as medicine or law, especially for women. Only one in 10 engineers are women, the lowest in Europe. As for apprentices, fewer than one in 20 is female. Government can only do so much, so the profession must sell itself better. Events like the See Inside Manufacturing campaign, which takes teenagers and teachers into factories, have been a great success.

But big change will come only from the top, and the EEF should get together with our secondary school heads to bang home the message that there will be 1.86 million new jobs over the next decade, yet only half will be filled at current rates. Here's a challenge for the EEF: in 10 years' time at least a quarter of the engineers present at its annual Dorchester bash should be wearing dresses – and that's not the men.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Floyd Mayweather will relinquish his five world titles after beating Manny Pacquiao
Arts and Entertainment
tvGame of Thrones season 5 ep 4, review - WARNING: contains major spoiliers!
Tottenham legend Jimmy Greaves has defended fans use of the word 'Yid'
Life and Style
Arts and Entertainment
The Ridiculous Six has been produced by Adam Sandler, who also stars in it
filmNew controversy after nine Native American actors walked off set
Life and Style
Google celebrates Bartolomeo Cristofori's 360th birthday
techGoogle Doodle to the rescue
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Senior SEO Executive

£24000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior SEO Executive is requi...

Recruitment Genius: Online Customer Service Administrator

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Online customer Service Admi...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Marketing Executive

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This global, industry leading, ...

Day In a Page

Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living