Sean Malkeson is a lecturer at Liverpool John Moores University, and is Deputy Chairman Political for City of Liverpool Conservatives.
If you aren’t currently aware, this year is the “Year of Engineering”. This is a Government campaign that aims to celebrate all that is engineering and promote skill development, and ensure that everyone has the opportunity to develop skills that will allow them to prosper in a twenty-first century economy.
Naturally, we should not judge any government endeavour on its intentions but on its results. However, the aims of the Year of Engineering are admirable. Being Conservatives, we instinctively know that whilst government can be a force for good, more government is not the answer to every problem we face. We understand that, ultimately, it is people that solve these problems. This is why the Year of Engineering matters.
To be technical for a moment, engineering involves the use of our knowledge of the sciences and mathematics to provide solutions to the problems we face that will, importantly, function in the real world. As engineers, we must recognise that there are no perfect solutions to problems, but only trade-offs. We have limited resources, and must be selective in how we use them to best meet the challenges that we face. Therefore, at the heart of the engineering profession is the ability to make the best possible decisions when it comes to these trade-offs, ensuring high quality performance in an effective, efficient and sustainable manner. Unsurprisingly, this is no trivial matter.
As such, the question must be asked: as the party of Government, what role can we play to ensure that we have the individuals in our society with the skills, knowledge and experience to tackle the aforementioned challenges head on in the decades ahead?
In my opinion, there are three areas that we can address, which are necessary but by no means sufficient in answering this question. Moreover, by no means do I claim to have all the answers on these issues, but hope that this article can lead to further discussions. These areas are as follows:
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1. Raising awareness: We must work with schools and colleges to promote the sciences, technology, engineering and mathematics (commonly referred to as the STEM subjects), introducing pupils to the enjoyment and creativity involved in problem-solving and innovation.
Far too often, there is a lack of awareness about what the roles of scientists and engineers actually are. As such, many schoolchildren and sixth-formers don’t realise that these professions might be something they could be interested in, or have a misguided belief that these professions simply aren’t open to them, or that they wouldn’t lead to a well-paid job.
Having been involved in a number of outreach programmes pitching the engineering profession to sixth-formers, it always surprises me how often these points come up. Colleagues have informed me that my experiences in this regard are far from unique. If we want to maximise opportunities that are available to people and encourage them to make the most of those opportunities, they first need to be aware that these exist. Whilst work has been done to address these issues with awareness, more is needed to be done.
2. Cultural shift: We must recognise that technical qualifications should be respected and sought after, resulting in fulfilling careers. Over a number of decades, technical trades (e.g. plumbers, electricians and mechanics) have been devalued by many. These are skills that we need and, given reports of major shortages in some of these professions (see here and here), offer excellent opportunities.
As the son of a plumber who ran his own local business for several decades, I know that such technical professions can be extremely rewarding. Work needs to be done to let people, particularly those in school, know that this is an alternative to a University path.
3. Enterprise: If we are to make the most of technological innovations, we must also embrace the entrepreneurial spirit that this nation is famed for. Simply having new technologies available to us isn’t enough. We must also use these new technologies to provide goods of a sufficiently high quality that people want at a sufficiently low price that they are willing to pay.
Encouraging entrepreneurism, once again, particularly in schoolchildren, is vital in ensuring that new ideas are implemented. Lord Young’s 2014 “Enterprise for all” report was a step towards this end, but more needs to be done to bring some of the proposals forward.
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If we address these three areas, we can identify, nurture and promote talents which, in turn, lead to the skills, products and services that improve all our lives.
From a political perspective, I believe that there are lessons for the Conservative Party here too. At the heart of conservative values is the belief that people should be free to pursue their own interests, whether these be political, social or economic, provided that they do not infringe on the rights of others to do the same. In other words, we believe in empowering the individual and not the state. Therefore, aiming to ensure that people have the opportunity to develop skills that others are willing to pay for is a good step towards empowering them.
Importantly, if the Conservative Party is to be the “Party of Aspiration”, we must aim to give everyone the freedom, opportunity and incentive to try to match – and perhaps surpass – their aspirations. Not everyone will but all should have their chance.
If we succeed in this – and I believe we can – we will not only go some way towards making the most of the Year of Engineering but also help to tackle the major challenges that face us in the years to come, building a stronger, fairer and more prosperous United Kingdom for this and future generations.