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.

News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
filmDirector said film would 'never have been financed' with ethnic minority actors in key roles
News
people
Sport
footballArsenal 2 Borussia Dortmund 0: And they can still top the group
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
An unseen image of Kurt Cobain at home featured in the film 'Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck'
film
News
Andy Murray with his girlfriend of nine years, Kim Sears who he has got engaged to
peopleWimbledon champion announces engagement to girlfriend Kim Sears
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tv
Arts and Entertainment
George Mpanga has been shortlisted for the Critics’ Choice prize
music
News
Albert Camus (left) and Jean-Paul Sartre fell out in 1952 and did not speak again before Camus’s death
people
Arts and Entertainment
Roisin, James and Sanjay in the boardroom
tvReview: This week's failing project manager had to go
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
News
Ed Miliband visiting the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem. The Labour leader has spoken more openly of his heritage recently
newsAttacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But are the barbs more sinister?
Arts and Entertainment
'Felfie' (2014) by Alison Jackson
photographyNew exhibition shows how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
News
i100
Life and Style
Fright night: the board game dates back to at least 1890
life
Environment
The vaquita is being killed by fishermen trying to catch the totoaba fish, which is prized in China
environmentJust 97 of the 'world's cutest' sea mammals remain
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

SThree: The benefits of Recruitment at SThree...

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Comission: SThree: SThree, International Recruitme...

h2 Recruit Ltd: Head of Regional Sales - Financial Software - £130,000 OTE

Negotiable: h2 Recruit Ltd: A rapidly expanding, global Software/ SaaS Vendor ...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultants

£20000 - £25000 per annum + OTE £Competitive: SThree: SThree Group and have be...

Langley James : IT Support; Helpdesk, VMware; Manchester, £18k

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Langley James : IT Support; Helpdesk, VMware; Manch...

Day In a Page

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
There's a Good Girl exhibition: How female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising

In pictures: There's a Good Girl exhibition

The new exhibition reveals how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover - from advent calendars to doll's houses

UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover

It worked with cupcakes, doughnuts and macarons so no wonder someone decided to revamp the humble biscuit
Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

It's no surprise that the building game born in Sweden in 2009 and now played by millions, has imitators keen to construct their own mega money-spinner
The King's School is way ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology

Staying connected: The King's School

The school in Cambridgeshire is ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology. Richard Garner discovers how teachers and pupils stay connected
Christmas 2014: 23 best women's perfumes

Festively fragrant: the best women's perfumes

Give a loved one a luxe fragrance this year or treat yourself to a sensual pick-me-up
Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition

Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund

The Ox celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition
Billy Joe Saunders vs Chris Eubank Jnr: When two worlds collide

When two worlds collide

Traveller Billy Joe Saunders did not have a pampered public-school upbringing - unlike Saturday’s opponent Chris Eubank Jnr
Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

Putin’s far-right ambition

Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

Escape to Moominland

What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?