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7 July 2014updated 24 Jun 2021 12:59pm

New perceptions

The long-term benefits of an “infrastructure renaissance” will never be realised unless we tackle the engineering skills gap at classroom level.

By Tom Bishop

Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin must be thanking his lucky stars that he took up office at such a promising time for British infrastructure. Back in the depths of the financial downturn, just a few short years ago, his predecessors could scarcely have dreamt of presiding over such a potential upturn in the nation’s transport system.

Today, plans for HS2 are steaming ahead and the coalition government is putting together an Infrastructure Act to kickstart major projects amounting to £36bn. Innovative forms of project finance are expected, which should attract significant funding from overseas investors.

While I share Mr McLoughlin’s general optimism, there are, however, some big questions that may be easily overlooked in the broader public debate about Britain’s hoped-for transport renaissance.

First, how committed is the government to taking a more long-term approach to infrastructure planning? Can it escape the understandable short-term demands of party politics? We will hopefully hear more about the government’s broader approach in the forthcoming Infrastructure Act, or indeed in the 2014 Autumn Statement, expected in early December.

Second, and of equal importance, where are we going to find the army of highly qualified British engineers needed to build all these ambitious projects? The challenges of long-term infrastructure development go far beyond transport policy. Both phases of HS2 are unlikely to be completed before the early 2030s, for example, and if ministers are looking at projects with outcomes measured in decades, it is critical that we address an education system that is apparently failing to interest young people in engineering.

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The UK faces a growing shortage of suitably qualified graduates. And the skills shortfall will continue to deteriorate, with an estimated 2.2 million entrants to the industry needed nationally over the next five to ten years. That is what it will take to satisfy a projected 40 per cent growth rate in a sector that already makes up nearly a fifth of the total UK workforce.

Slim chance, however, that our schools are well positioned to meet this demand when, according to industry surveys, only half of 11 to 14-year-olds would consider engineering as a career, and only around 7 per cent aspire to join the profession.

Efforts, admittedly, are being made, through initiatives such as Tomorrow’s Engineers, which seeks to incorporate engineering into school curricula. Yet the challenge goes, perhaps, far deeper than education policy. It touches the entire way in which the profession is viewed by the general public. Astonishingly, around 60 per cent of Britain’s engineers believe that the term “engineer” is not properly understood in the wider world. It is hard to imagine doctors or lawyers feeling the same level of misunderstanding.

Changing such deep-rooted perceptions will be no easy task. But such an important issue surely merits a reappraisal of our approach to education if Britain is to fully exploit the job-creating potential of long-term infrastructure projects. And that needs to start in the classroom. Initiatives to promote engineering ought to be considered as a core plank of curriculum planning, backed up by a campaign of mentoring and special financial incentives to promote interest in degrees.

As a first step, I’d call for a dedicated steering group of industry figures, education leaders and relevant government figures to tackle this important challenge.

Perhaps such a proposal could be integrated into the kind of independent commission on infrastructure proposed by Sir John Armitt, the chairman of the Olympic Delivery Authority and former chief executive of Network Rail? In many respects, Sir John’s thinking helps address my concern about Britain’s ability to benefit from all the advantages of a growing transport infrastructure. I support his proposals to focus our strategic thinking on transport requirements over the next 25 to 30 years, in a way which transcends party political boundaries.

As things stand, there is a risk of investment priorities being chopped and changed with every new government. Hence, how then can the big engineering employers plan for the future? How can the dependent supply chains look for any sustainable long-term revenue growth, recruiting to their fullest with real confidence that the demand for new jobs will be maintained?

With these uncertainties, one begins to see why engineering is struggling to win over potential recruits.

Unless steps are taken to shore up the long-term sustainability of the industry, the nation’s talented youngsters will continue to choose more reliable careers.

I have no doubt that our Transport Secretary can contribute much to this debate. But cross-party consensus is vital if we are to build a deep-rooted infrastructure policy that is truly fit for the future.

Tom Bishop is executive chairman for Europe, Middle East and India at URS