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.

Life and Style
The new Windows 10 Start Menu
tech
News
More than 90 years of car history are coming to an end with the abolition of the paper car-tax disc
newsThis and other facts you never knew about the paper circle - completely obsolete today
Arts and Entertainment
There has been a boom in ticket sales for female comics, according to an industry survey
comedyFirst national survey reveals Britain’s comedic tastes
Arts and Entertainment
Ed Sheeran performs at his Amazon Front Row event on Tuesday 30 September
musicHe spotted PM at private gig
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Mystery man: Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike in '‘Gone Girl'
films... by the director David Fincher
Arts and Entertainment
Hilary North's 'How My Life Has Changed', 2001
books(and not a Buzzfeed article in sight)
News
Kim Jong Un gives field guidance during his inspection of the Korean People's Army (KPA) Naval Unit 167
newsSouth Korean reports suggest rumours of a coup were unfounded
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
News
people'I’d rather have Fred and Rose West quote my characters on childcare'
Life and Style
stoptober... when the patch, gum and cold turkey had all faied
Travel
Bruce Chatwin's novel 'On the Black Hill' was set at The Vision Farm
travelOne of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
Arts and Entertainment
Gay and OK: a scene from 'Pride'
filmsUS film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
News
people
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Birmingham - Real Staffing

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Real Staffing are currently lo...

Trust Accountant - Kent

NEGOTIABLE: Austen Lloyd: TRUST ACCOUNTANT - KENTIf you are a Chartered Accou...

Graduate Recruitment Consultant - 2013/14 Grads - No Exp Needed

£18000 - £20000 per annum + OTE £30000: SThree: SThree are a global FTSE 250 b...

Law Costs

Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: CITY - Law Costs Draftsperson - NICHE...

Day In a Page

Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

The children orphaned by Ebola...

... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

Are censors pandering to homophobia?

US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
The magic of roundabouts

Lords of the rings

Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
Why do we like making lists?

Notes to self: Why do we like making lists?

Well it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
Hong Kong protests: A good time to open a new restaurant?

A good time to open a new restaurant in Hong Kong?

As pro-democracy demonstrators hold firm, chef Rowley Leigh, who's in the city to open a new restaurant, says you couldn't hope to meet a nicer bunch
Paris Fashion Week: Karl Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'

Paris Fashion Week

Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'
Bruce Chatwin's Wales: One of the finest one-day walks in Britain

Simon Calder discovers Bruce Chatwin's Wales

One of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
10 best children's nightwear

10 best children's nightwear

Make sure the kids stay cosy on cooler autumn nights in this selection of pjs, onesies and nighties
Manchester City vs Roma: Five things we learnt from City’s draw at the Etihad

Manchester City vs Roma

Five things we learnt from City’s Champions League draw at the Etihad
Martin Hardy: Mike Ashley must act now and end the Alan Pardew reign

Trouble on the Tyne

Ashley must act now and end Pardew's reign at Newcastle, says Martin Hardy
Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

Last chance to see...

The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

Truth behind teens' grumpiness

Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

Hacked photos: the third wave

Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?