School Leaders Summit 2014

The Future of Education

October 16th 2014 | London

Former BIS committee chairman: skills shortage needs sorting

How can the UK nurture a new generation of engineers and scientists? Peter Luff MP examines the case for starting with schools, ahead of his new bill on careers information

The UK has a real and worrying shortage of young engineers and scientists – but this is not a new discovery. During my five years as Chairman of the Business, Innovation and Skills select committee in the last Parliament, and during my two-and-and-half years as a defence minister in this one, the concern that was expressed to me time and time again by manufacturing and technology companies was that there just weren't enough apprentice and graduate engineers to meet demand.

The shortfall in supply is particularly stark among women: however you measure the female participation rate in engineering, it comes out around 10 or 12% at best - the lowest in the EU. Twenty seventh out of twenty seven. And when Croatia joins, it will be twenty eighth out of twenty eight.

But that is not to say that governments haven't acknowledged this problem. Indeed, we've been talking about our skills shortage for years. This government, and to an extent the last Labour administration, have put a real emphasis on skills policy, by, for example, improving and increasing the number of apprenticeship places available and introducing a skills fund for businesses to create training programmes to address their skills needs.

"The UK has a real and worrying shortage of young engineers and scientists."

But I am concerned that too much of the activity we are undertaking at present comes too late and after children have already made crucial choices about the subjects they enjoy and want to pursue. In my view, not enough is being done to inspire children in school years six and seven (10, 11 and 12 year olds). It is in these early years that children form opinions of the subjects and unless they realise the importance of doing well in maths and physics, they will never be able to pursue engineering or science careers. Of course, we must make sure that we have apprenticeship and higher education places available, but if we don't have enough young people interested in these careers then we will never be able to address our skills shortage.

So, what I am trying to do is to create an increased demand from young people – to make them more enthusiastic about pursuing STEM subjects and careers. To seek to inspire them about the possibilities in engineering, science and technology.

On February 13th I will introduce a Ten Minute Rule Bill in the Commons that begins a two-year campaign. The Bill aims to make it more likely that young people – and especially girls – will be exposed to the excitement of modern engineering, so that more of them are inspired to take up careers in these subjects.

In a nutshell, the Bill obliges schools – at Key Stage Two and above – to ensure their pupils have some exposure to the broad opportunities that exist, from heavy construction to light engineering, from defence to medicine, from the environment to agriculture.

They will be helped to do this by a duty on Local Enterprise Partnerships to support them and a requirement for government to maintain support for schools' key activities.

The Bill also removes all the barriers to talented young professionals from going into schools to teach shortage subjects like physics and maths. These young professionals, with a bit of assistance, would make more engaging teachers of these subjects – more so than fully qualified teachers from other disciplines – and they can also say why the subjects matter with real authority.

The support I have received so far has been very encouraging. My Bill is being sponsored by prominent MPs from both sides of the house, showing the cross party understanding of just how important addressing our skills shortage is. I have also had discussions with the major engineering organisations and institutions, including the Royal Academy of Engineering, Engineering UK, the Engineering Council, the Institute of Civil Engineering and the Institute of Mechanical Engineering, who have backed my ideas and believe this is the right step at the right time.

With this increasing support and by building on existing schemes such as The Big Bang Fair, Tomorrow's Engineers and the STEM Directories, I'm optimistic about what I might achieve.

Peter Luff is MP for Mid Worcestshire and former Chairman of the Business, Innovation and Skills select committee