If engineering is hot, will it expand to meet demand for new recruits?

A video of dancing engineers has gone viral, with the side effect of drawing inquiries from prospective students. But Dame Sue Ion says many more graduates are needed, particularly women. She spoke to Margareta Pagano

Margareta Pagano
Monday 06 October 2014 09:22 BST
Dame Sue Ion says the turning point was when a teacher suggested she read material sciences
Dame Sue Ion says the turning point was when a teacher suggested she read material sciences (JON SUPER)

Bring out the wet towels and sit down if you can’t cope with the heat, but being an engineer may be about to go from being one of the geekiest jobs on earth to one of the coolest.

First up to show how hip engineering is was Sir John Armitt, the brain behind the Olympic Park, who recently revealed his boogying skills in an online video, dancing along to Pharrell’s wonderfully infectious “Happy”.

The 68-year-old took part in the “Engineering Happiness” dance-off for the Institute of Civil Engineers, along with another hundred or so of his colleagues, shaking their hips around some of London’s most stunningly designed landmarks. And what a shake-out it’s proving to be; the video is going viral while ICE says it is being flooded with requests from schools wanting to learn more about the Happy profession.

And now, sitting in front of me, is Dame Sue Ion, one of the UK’s most distinguished nuclear engineers, who tells me her job is tremendous fun, that she has travelled the world with her skills and that, contrary to popular perceptions, engineers are the ones designing everything from the latest in hi-fashion waterproof clothing to state-of-the-art medical devices such as Professor Eleanor Stride’s ground-breaking work at Oxford, making bubbles carry cancer drugs around the body. The pay is good too.

Indeed, Dame Sue says working as an engineer is among the best paid jobs in the country and that graduates – and apprentices too – have higher starting salaries than most other professions; salaries start at £26,000 compared with £21,000 elsewhere. Graduates from Imperial College, her alma mater, earn more on leaving university than any other students when entering the workplace. Well, apart from rappers, perhaps.

She loved the video too: “I’m a rubbish dancer so I’m glad they didn’t ask me to take part in the film, which was amazing and just the sort of thing we should be propagating. I recognised a number of the top engineers as well as John Armitt and it was great to see the girls among them.

“It’s extraordinary how even the smallest media exposure can have an enormous impact: after TV shows like CSI and Silent Witness started, the numbers of youngsters applying to study forensic science shot up. Brian Cox’s programmes on physics and astronomy have had a similar effect with the number of students applying to Manchester University, where he lectures.”

But we need thousands more. The Royal Academy of Engineering in London, where Dame Sue is a fellow and where we meet, estimates that Britain needs 640,000 new engineering graduates by 2020 to fill all the roles – mainly to replace a retiring workforce – but also to fill the new jobs in the growth industries. For example, just one company – Atkins, the civil engineering to design group that is involved in world-class projects from Crossrail to the ITER fusion reactor in France – will need 10,000 engineers over the next few years.

Plugging the black hole isn’t going to be easy despite the latest buzz. Dame Sue adds that fewer than 1 per cent of school-leavers actively considers going into engineering: only 6,000 girls out of 300,000 each year take A-level physics. No wonder only 8 per cent of all engineers are women, the lowest number in Europe.

Each year there are about 21,000 engineering graduates, meaning there will be some 170,000 engineering graduates by 2020. You can do the sums. Or maybe you can’t: only 70,000 students in the UK take A-level maths each year.

It’s a number that appals Dame Sue. “When did it become acceptable to say – as so many top people in the media and even on the BBC do frequently – things like, ‘I’m no good at maths’? Can you imagine them saying, ‘I can’t do English’? It’s a tragedy and a real problem in this country and one that just doesn’t happen in countries like Germany or Italy. This is a cultural issue that needs to be addressed quickly and seriously.”

And she knows what to do. The 59-year-old has just chaired a new study by the Royal Academy to look at why the UK is so bad at producing engineers – The Universe of Engineering, to be published next month– and to come up with solutions. “There are so many problems that need solving and, the truth is, most of the issues are well known. So we need everybody involved – the Government, the Education Department, schools, teachers, parents and pupils – all working together in a joined-up approach.”

There’s a long list of what’s wrong, she says. Science syllabuses in schools are out of date and often irrelevant; most teachers are ill-informed about the potential of jobs in new sectors such as the biomedical sciences, as are most parents and school careers services.

“What we need is more relevant science. There is good work taking place. For example, a school in Morpeth allowed its students to study the local impact of the latest floods, how they had affected their district, the floodplains, that sort of thing in their geography lessons. Pupils were engaged and the school had the most amazing response. This sort of approach needs to be extended across the sciences.”

Having an inspirational teacher at Penwortham Girls’ School in Lancashire was the epiphany for Dame Sue. “I wasn’t sure whether to go for physics or chemistry but I had the most wonderful chemistry teacher who advised me to read material sciences rather than a pure subject. This was the best of both worlds and great advice. We were all encouraged to do the sciences; not like today.”

Her school must have been doing something right: a fellow classmate was Nancy Rothwell, another scientist and another Dame who is now president of Manchester University, where Dame Sue is also on the board and a guest lecturer.

“I get into terrible trouble when I visit schools to talk to students – especially the girls – as I tell them not to dump the sciences because they are difficult. So many choose the softer, creative subjects but I tell them they can still do those subjects later on – what you can’t do is go back and study the sciences. They all look glum after I give those talks but they’ve got to be told.”

Curriculum Vitae: Dame Sue Ion

Born: 1955

Education: BSc in material sciences, Imperial College. PhD in Metallurgy, Imperial.

Career: Joined British Nuclear Fuels as technical officer in 1979 and then technology director until 2006, controlling a £100m budget. Sat on the Prime Minister’s Council for Science and Technology when Tony Blair made his dramatic U-turn on nuclear energy. Chaired the EU Euratom Science and Technology Committee and chairs the Nuclear Innovation and Research Advisory board. Sits on the board of governors of Manchester University and is a visiting professor of Imperial College. She was recently the first woman to be awarded the President’s Medal for her work by the Royal Academy of Engineering.

Favourite books: Stig Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie Project.

Favourite music: a teenage violinist, she likes most classical but also rock bands such as Journey and Genesis.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in