Philip Greenish: 'we are suffering from a skills shortage that will worsen until we take a grip'

Chief executive officer of The Royal Academy of Engineering
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The Independent Online

If it was not apparent before, the credit crunch has highlighted the risk of over-dependence on the services sector for economic growth, national prosperity and wellbeing. As a result, young people who are highly skilled in science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) will be fundamentally important to the UK's future.

Countries that prosper in the highly competitive world in which we live are those that have invested in and encouraged high levels of technological advancement. That is why Gordon Brown and politicians from all parties have consistently supported increased funding for the Stem skills that underpin innovation.

At present, however, the UK is suffering from a skills shortage that will worsen unless we really take a grip. Our students have a growing number of career choices and not enough are choosing Stem-related education or career routes. Great efforts are being made by industry and government to address this, which has led to some good results, but progress is too slow.

Although participation in higher education has grown by 60 per cent in the last decade, the number of students taking engineering degrees has not kept pace. Student numbers in physics have declined; women still make up just 14 per cent of engineering undergraduates; and students from some socio-economic groups remain deeply under-represented. This is despite the evidence of both the high demand for graduates with the skills that these subjects impart, and the very rewarding careers that follow.

So, the perception of Stem among young students needs to be improved and we must finally dispel any lingering, outmoded impression of sunset industries, which is light years from today's reality. Engineers and scientists are the people who will slow down global warming, deal with its effects and develop carbon-neutral fuels. They will also develop new treatments for diseases and pioneer new ways to increase food production and provide clean water for all.

At the very least we need every young person to consider careers in engineering and science – careers that are often at the cutting edge and can provide some of the highest-paid jobs around. Many Fellows of The Royal Academy of Engineering, for example, are leaders of global companies or world-class research groups. Many of their innovations have changed the world for the better.

That is why I am delighted that Stem professions are leading a major project to change the perception of careers in engineering and science. We are joining forces with government departments and some of Britain's biggest companies to create the first UK Young Scientists and Engineers Fair: The Big Bang. Taking place in March next year, The Big Bang will be the biggest such event for students and teachers ever to be held in the UK.

The Big Bang will be 2009's focal point for science and engineering for young people, showcasing the best the UK has to offer and inspiring future generations to get involved. It will have a huge impact in attracting students from across the country to get involved in Stem and ensure our economic footing is strong for the future.

From 4-6 March next year, the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre in Westminster, London, will play host to nearly 9,000 young people, teachers and members of the public, who will take part in this celebration of science, technology, engineering and maths. The Big Bang will feature compelling and engaging shows, workshops and presentations across the entire science and engineering spectrum. There will be displays and demonstrations of leading-edge UK technology from sponsor companies, including Shell and BAE Systems, and exhibition stands to showcase further inspirational projects. One of the highlights will be the newly established National Science Competition: the UK's most significant student competition to identify the first UK Young Scientist and UK Young Technologist of the Year.

The Big Bang will become an annual event, and there is a genuine excitement among our professional communities. Our ambition is to make it the event of the year on the education calendar, reaching thousands of students not involved previously. The hope is that its success will change perceptions, increase interest and have a long-term positive impact on the UK's economy, putting Stem at the heart of the UK's future.

For more information and to register interest in the Big Bang, visit www.thebigbangfair.co.uk

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