Margareta Pagano: The carrots that are needed to grow engineers

Midweek View: There has to be an even greater push in schools to make teenagers aware that engineering is an exciting option
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The Independent Online

One of my 17-year-old son's good friends hopes to be heading to Nottingham University this autumn to study physics and, if all goes according to plan, to then train as a engineer. If he beats the grades that Nottingham has asked for, he will be given £1,000 in cash at the start of his second year; an enticement which, if one is allowed to say so under the Bribery Act, can only be described as a bribe.

It's not the cash that persuaded him to study physics – that is due to an inspirational teacher – but he says it most certainly "perked him up" and has given him the extra carrot.

If this is what it takes to get more teenagers to study the hard-core science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem) subjects, then it's a brilliant idea; and Nottingham should be commended for its ingenuity.

Indeed, we need more bribery: only 12,000 engineering students are graduating annually. But figures from the Institution of Mechanical Engineers show the UK needs 31,100 graduate engineers every year for the next five years to meet industry demand in 2017.

The shortage is so acute that the IME and the Engineering Employers' Federation warn the failure to train the next generation of engineers will be devastating for the future of British manufacturing. It's all the more potentially embarrassing as the Government is working hard to rebalance the economy with its Made in Britain and See Inside Manufacturing campaign, both magnificent efforts.

It doesn't matter how much work Vince Cable, the business secretary, does to push manufacturing back up to the top of the agenda; at the current numbers there simply won't be enough of them to build the new bridges or engines needed.

Yet the engineering sector continues to be a huge success story; it earned £1.15 trillion in turnover in 2010, a quarter of all the UK's business output and employs 5.6 million people across 551,520 companies. Its share of GDP may have shrunk but output has risen by 25 per cent since the 1970s.

And, contrary to the orthodoxy, engineering is also a good payer with long-term career prospects: the average salary for engineering technicians and craftsmen is £26,440, slightly above the mean salary for equivalent careers, while for engineering and technology graduates, the starting salary is £24,953, the fourth-highest, after medicine, dentistry and business, and much higher than the £16,123 paid to creative arts and design graduates.

So what's to be done? First, there has to be an even greater push in schools and homes to make teenagers more aware that engineering is an exciting option. This requires big cultural changes, better teachers qualified in Stem subjects and more encouragement to tell pupils about engineering and what it means in today's hi-tech environment.

A recent study for Engineering UK showed a fifth of all teachers actively discouraged pupils from considering it as a career while only a half said they suggested engineering; yet 70 per cent of pupils said they found the sciences exciting to study. Clearly something is going awry, something which schools and industry need to work on.

This would move quicker if we could demonstrate in our schools, TV and the media generally, that science is cool. As the nation that led the industrial revolution, it's more than ironic that the brilliance of Isambard Kingdom Brunel is less well known than Simon Cowell's vitamin injections.

Attracting more girls to study science is a no-brainer. The UK has the lowest proportion of female engineers in Europe: at 9 per cent it is half that of Spain, Sweden and Italy. No one I have talked to knows why, particularly as female graduates are overtaking the numbers of males in the other professions such as medicine, accountancy and law. Female engineers earn on average just below £100,000, compared with a premium of £157,000 for men. If industry wants to be taken seriously, it must put this right immediately.

Encouraging more of the young known as Neets – not in education, employment, or training – should be another ambition for industry.

There is one issue which only the engineers can sort out and that's plugging the leakage of its graduates; nearly one in two engineers leave after a few years to go into other industries.

Is this because of higher salaries elsewhere? Many used to switch to the City but less so today. But there is some optimism; the number of students applying to study engineering has crept up this year, albeit by the tiniest number; higher tuition fees may have been brutal but they have served to concentrate minds, and future career prospects. Bribes do seem to work.