Teach your children well

There was a time when a carefully chosen line from a 1960s’ song made a great headline for an editorial opinion piece. Sadly, Crosby, Stills and Nash are no longer young and many of their original followers are now well into retirement.

And it seems that the UK engineers within their fanbase failed to follow the parenting advice in their most famous song. As a result, 2015 started with a damning report on how not enough young people are going into engineering and technology careers.

Tony InghamThe bare bones of the facts are that Britain needs about 200,000 kids to start engineering apprenticeships or degree courses each year, but we are currently falling short by over 50,000. As a result, the UK engineering industries are not achieving their full potential – to the tune of about £20bn in 2015, a figure expected to rise, year on year, while other countries strengthen their position in the international technological markets.

This led many industry captains to issue rallying cries, which can be summed up as: do more to encourage kids into the STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) streams of education; and that industry, academia and the Government need to work hand in glove to tap into this wellspring of emerging talent.

However, it was not all gloom and doom. Engineering UK’s annual State of Engineering report, published in January, shows that the engineering sector contributed nearly £500 billion (27%) of the UK’s GDP in 2014. The 27% figure represents a significant increase in the importance of engineering to the UK economy; before the recession the number was in the mid-teens. Consequently, we can conclude that the Government’s stated objective of refocusing the national economy away from overdependence on the flighty financial sector is working. But we must look to the future and develop the next generation of engineers, scientists, technologists and mathematicians.

When I am not working in the field of sensing and control engineering I run a Sea Cadet unit. I regularly witness, first-hand, how enthusiastic a teenager can become when something grabs their attention. It is my role to ignite and nurture this excitement, and one very important rule I have learned is that teenagers are not all the same. Each needs to be encouraged in their own, unique way, and if I get it right the results can be phenomenal.

This effect is actually reflected in another recent report, the IMechE’s Five Tribes: Personalising Engineering Education. It says one size does not fit all; each teenager needs an individualised introduction to the possibilities of technology careers. It identifies five groups:

  • STEM devotees – perhaps the most obviously fertile ground.
  • Social artists – creative and capable people.
  • Enthused unfocused – passionate about STEM, but lack confidence.
  • Individualists – independent, innovative and potential entrepreneurs.
  • Less engaged – a small group. Need encouragement, not written off.

It would be very easy to dismiss this as an oversimplification. But it is better to see it as a ‘primary classification’ – a first step in a process. It accords very much with my experience with the Cadets, and could lead to a whole generation of capable and innovative engineers.

And a final comment on how attitudes to STEM are improving: 2015 has kicked off with two very successful British films – Theory of Everything and Imitation Game. They, respectively, feature a physicist and a mathematician as their central character. To my mind it is better to make role models out of such people rather than superheroes, boy wizards and hobbits!