Daniel Rossall-Valentine is Head of Campaign for This is Engineering at the Royal Academy of Engineering, and Deputy Chairman of Sevenoaks Conservative Association. He writes in a personal capacity.
“It’s the same formula: it is education, infrastructure and technology —those three things”, so said Boris Johnson in June when interviewed by the Evening Standard about his agenda for government. According to Boris, those are the three principles which informed his time as Mayor of London and will be his priorities as Prime Minister.
These priorities are very welcome because they recognise the essential connections between three vital elements of wealth generation, and represent a more sophisticated view of economic growth than the one-dimensional and idealistic catchphrase of “education, education, education” which prevailed under a previous government.
The UK is involved in a long running battle to raise its productivity. We have long needed a better vision of what we need to do to boost productivity and I believe that this vision is now being developed.
Engineers and technicians must be at the heart of this new vision. Engineers are essential for innovation, they design, build and improve technology and have become central to national productivity, economic growth and living standards. Engineers are the people who turn scientific principles into practical application, social benefit and economic value. Our world is being unified in a new way; by a series of threats that know no borders. We face big challenges, including overpopulation, environmental degradation, malnutrition, biodiversity loss, cyber-terrorism and global warming, and technology is central to building solutions for each of these and making our world work better for everyone.
In truth, technology is not a sector anymore; it is now the driver of productivity and economic success (and indeed survival) for organisations in every sector. The analytical and design skills of engineers have become more and more valuable as the rate of technological change accelerates. No sector of the economy is now protected from the forces of technological change; healthcare, agriculture, retail, and education are just four examples of sectors which are currently experiencing rapid technological change; change that offers significant improvements in productivity and benefits for users.
Growing our domestic tech capacity offers great benefits to the UK. Tech firms have shown that they can scale very rapidly. The rise of “tech unicorns” (recent startups valued at over $1 billion) demonstrates the economic and social potential offered by tech. Engineering has been proven to be a very effective multiplier of economic growth. The UK should not be modest about its future in tech because we have significant advantages, including a trusted legal regime, access to capital and credit, access to support services, unparalleled access to tech customers, an educated workforce, world class universities, stable taxation and intelligent regulation.
However, the UK has one great and persisting tech weakness which threatens to impede our growth, and that is an inadequate number of engineers and technicians. The UK needs to grow its pool of engineering talent, to ensure that UK-based tech companies can remain in the UK as they scale rapidly, and to enable engineering companies to win big projects. If the UK doesn’t expand its pool of engineering talent we risk losing tech firms, tech projects and tech investment and the huge economic and social value that they bring. The proportion of jobs that require technical skill is growing and Britain should aspire to a growing share of this growing pie.
Young people are avid consumers of technology, but we need more of them to aspire to mastering the engineering that underpins the technology so that they can become developers, makers and creators of technology, rather than mere users. We also need more young people who combine engineering skills with the entrepreneurial and managerial skills that will enable them to form and scale business enterprises; so that the UK can capture an increasing share of lucrative engineering value-chains; and provide the GDP and employment that flow from end-to-end technology development. Increasingly people who are not tech-savvy are at risk of being automated out of a job, so the need for upskilling the UK in technical skills is pressing.
This technical skills shortage has long been recognised and a multitude of projects have been started to encourage young people to consider engineering. And yet despite the number of initiatives, the shortfall of talent has not only persisted but seems to have grown larger over the last decade. We also need to diversify our talent pool and ensure we are attracting young people from all backgrounds; because only a diverse profession guarantees the diversity of ideas that technical fields rely on.
The UK has made good progress in raising the profile of engineering in the last few years. The Industrial Strategy and Grand Challenges of 2017 were very welcome developments at putting technology centre-stage. The Year Of Engineering 2018 led to a very significant change in the perception of engineering amongst school pupils. This year-long Government campaign also encouraged greater collaboration between the many professional engineering institutions that make up the UK’s complex engineering landscape. We can be optimistic that the UK has got into the good habit of paying far more recognition to the engineers and entrepreneurs who enable, create and democratise the technology which improves lives, saves time and generates wealth.
Too often we allow our natural British reserve about talking about wealth to prevent us talking about wealth creation. Social benefit and commercial success are too often portrayed as trade-offs, when they are mutually reinforcing; the best technology delivers for investors as well as society-at-large. Technological success is a stool with three legs; technical progress, commercial success and social benefit. Technology is more than technology: technology is inherently social, and inherently financial, and we need more technologists who look at the full picture rather than the purely technical aspects of technology. Without profit, technology is the greatest creator of loss and debt known to mankind, and without social benefit technology can be a force of social division, rather than a democratising force.
To maximise the benefits of technology we need to close the technology skills gap, and this requires action by many players. We cannot rely on Government alone to solve this persistent problem. We know that too few young people are studying engineering related degrees and apprenticeships. One major factor is the image of engineering. Unfortunately, a number of unappealing stereotypes have become attached to the profession of engineering. Many young people assume that engineering involves hard, manual work, and male-dominated workplaces. Too many young people also believe that engineering is a narrow specialism that offers only a limited range of job opportunities. The problem is particularly acute with female students. Inspiring more girls to pursue STEM subjects and careers will not only help us to address the skills gap in science and technology, but it will also help us to create a more diverse workforce that truly represents the world we live in.
The UK has a great tradition of innovation and enterprise but only by unlocking the interest of our young people by presenting a positive vision of business enterprise and technology can we continue to succeed in this increasingly competitive field. One recent example of success is the This is Engineering campaign which was developed by a number of the UK’s leading technology companies and launched in January 2018. The campaign presents young people with positive, modern, authentic images of careers in technology and engineering, through the medium of short films which are available on many social media platforms. The films also highlight the societal benefits that new technology delivers, the team-work that technology and engineering projects rely on, and the creativity that is required at every stage in the design and build process.
By helping to promote careers in technology and engineering we can ensure that more and more young people see technology not just as a range of products to be consumed but also as a range of careers to be considered.