Every year, the UK faces a shortfall of 81,000 engineers in the workforce. That we have a shortage is common knowledge, but the scale of the problem is not well understood – let alone what we're doing to fill the gap.
In the past ten years there have been six major reports on the problem, the last being the influential Perkins Review from a year ago which carried a stark warning for UK plc: “If we are to compete in the global race, we need to equip our people with the skills to adapt, innovate and flourish.”
When there is strong concern over the nature of Britain's economic recovery – particularly our continued reliance on the financial and service sectors – that one of the chief problems identified by British businesses as a barrier to growth is a lack of science and engineering talent should be mobilising enormous resources from both business and government.
And those resources should be focused on schools, where the root of the problem lies. Put simply, the current generation of scientists and engineers are retiring, and they are not being replaced, despite the enormous uptake in higher education over the past two decades. Students just aren't interested in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) subjects. They need active encouragement to take them.
Schemes do exist. And they do work. But they are too disparate and arguably too small-scale to be making the kind of difference we need. There needs to be a co-ordinated, national effort to demonstrate to today's students that a career in engineering is not only viable, but fascinating and rewarding too. There's not enough room in the media for all those media studies graduates.
What we need is for industry to rally behind one banner, where resources can be pooled and initiatives funnelled in the same direction. The Tomorrow's Engineers programme is that banner. Backed by Vince Cable's department and supported by big businesses like Shell – who are investing more than £1m over the next three years – it could be just what we need to increase STEM subject uptake.
It has already been proven. Girls who participate in the programme are 50% more likely to see engineering as an attractive career choice compared with those that don't. So far the initiative has reached 50,000 students in 1,200 schools since its launch in 2013. But it needs to be bigger. Even if all those students became engineers, that's still a shortfall of around 31,000 for one year.
Business must play its part. After all, they're the ones with jobs to fill and no one to fill them. The investment by Shell is an excellent start, but the wider engineering community must get involved as well. The government has provided the framework. If we all get behind it, today's students could become the engineers we need tomorrow.