Siemens recently conducted a survey with schoolchildren, examining attitudes about a prospective career in engineering.
The results were illuminating. Just 10% of the 11-14 year olds interviewed said they thought engineering was 'important' and another 40% believed it was 'dirty' or 'smelly'.
It illustrates the point that advocates of engineering and manufacturing still have work to do here to persuade future generations as to their merits. UK attitudes to engineering are in stark contrast to those of our German counterparts. There, the engineer or 'technologist' is lauded as a significant contributor to society. Such roles carry status and it is no coincidence Germany's manufacturing base is double that of the UK.
As head of an engineering-based firm, I am also keen we continue to tackle image issues. The perception of grimy factories and oily working environments still pervades. But the UK engineering world I encounter is the opposite. It is one of advanced manufacturing, often undertaken in pristine surroundings.
Many experts agree about the need to rebalance the UK economy. From a recent reliance upon financial services, we must move to embrace our engineering and manufacturing heritage and strengths once again. We have seen a proportional decline in the sector over the past 20 years, yet it still represents 11% of the UK's GDP and employs three million. But if we are to reinvigorate our industrial base, the best opportunities lie in the arena of hi-tech advanced manufacturing.
With support and strategic vision, the UK can lead the world in areas such as aerospace, renewable energy, hi-tech engineering and low-carbon technology such as offshore wind turbines or electric car development. These are the kind of advanced engineering examples that will not only help secure Britain's manufacturing future against the might of China, but provide aspirational career paths for the engineers of tomorrow.
But we need the workforce to deliver it. Of the 300,000 graduates emerging each year from our educational establishments, only 24,000 do so with an engineering-related degree. China has 600,000 such graduates per annum.
However, statistics also confirm the even more critical requirements for vast improvement in the rate and availability of vocational training. The engineering sector needs 235,000 people at apprentice and technician level over the coming decade and the pipeline is approximately 50% short of the demand in numbers and quality. The reintroduction of apprenticeships is something taken very seriously at Siemens and I am delighted to see we are now the third largest provider of apprenticeship places in the UK.
But more needs to be done and Siemens is playing its part. One example is our role as a principal sponsor of the newly-formed university technical colleges (UTCs), supporting, in particular, the new Black Country UTC in Walsall. Opened last September, it will accommodate 400 technician engineers and give them specialist training and equipment as part of a re-introduction of vocational training. It is only through initiatives such as the UTCs that we can hope to fill the impending skills gap, and start to reverse the antiquated image of engineering that still exists in the UK.
A combination of government will, industry leadership and a strategic vision that places advanced engineering and manufacturing at the very heart of the nation will not only strengthen UK global competiveness, it will also assist in providing the kind of challenging and rewarding careers our children deserve.
Jürgen Maier (pictured) is managing director, Siemens Industry Sector UK
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