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  • Ian Ritchie : Scottish Business Insider

Skills shortfall means we must encourage students into engineering

EVERY NOW AND THEN I give a talk at a Scottish high school where I try and encourage them to consider following a career in engineering.

I tell them about the exciting projects that I have been involved in, from the very early days of the world wide web, to life–saving medical imaging solutions, to creating one of the world’s top companies publishing games for mobile phones.

But when I informally chat to the students afterwards I find that many of the brightest of them have already been encouraged, usually by their parents or their teachers, to go on to become qualified as an accountant or a lawyer, often seen as a gateway to a safe and respectable middle class career.

Personally, I can think of few worse jobs than accountants or lawyers. They don’t actually build anything original but are limited to measuring and documenting the creative efforts of others.

One is reminded of the quote from playwright Tom Stoppard, who said: “responsibility without power, the prerogative of the eunuch throughout the ages”.

He was referring to the House of Lords, but personally I think it actually applies much better to the role that accountants and lawyers have in our lives.

School students often have a vision of a science or engineering career being a lonely one –wearing a white coat at a lab bench, or at a computer, working alone on difficult and abstract problems.

And it seems that it is this perception that particularly switches girls off from considering an engineering career as an attractive option.

The UK has one of the worst records in the world for the proportion of engineers who are female – under nine per cent. Contrast this with Turkey, not a country that we automatically associate with gender equality, where the equivalent figure is 21 per cent - in Latvia it is 30 per cent.

In fact, the vast majority of engineers work in collaborative teams, working together to jointly achieve a challenging goal. It’s a social activity, which in my experience women both enjoy and do really well.

Modern engineers invent the future – they build innovative solutions to difficult problems – and it is a very creative process. It’s usually great fun and is normally pretty well paid. Salary surveys regularly show engineering graduates earning significantly more than those from other disciplines.

But, most importantly for students considering their future lives, engineers are, and will continue to be, in great demand. At a time when accountants and lawyers often struggle to get their first appointment, engineers rarely have any difficulty.

The Royal Academy of Engineering estimates that the demand for graduate engineers in the UK over the next six years will be something like 640,000 and contrasts this with the fact that the UK’s Universities currently only produce 21,000 engineering graduates each year.

But it gets worse: of the 21,000 engineering graduates each year, around a third of those are foreign students who are not UK domiciled and many of whom will return home; and 40% or more of the engineering graduates do not go on to take up professional engineering jobs – they are also in huge demand in, among others, the financial and consultancy sectors.

So the lesson is clear. If you are currently at school thinking about your future life, are reasonably good at maths and physics, and you want a secure, fascinating, well-paid career, then think about becoming an engineer.

That’s what I did, and I never regretted a moment of it.

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