The talk of power blackouts makes it easy to forget that Britain was a pioneer of energy technology. Unfortunately we have consistently undervalued our engineers and scientists - now we are seeing the consequences.
The government this week signed an agreement which means our looming energy crisis will be solved by nuclear power stations built by the French and owned, in part, by the Chinese. This demonstrates the impact of Britain's skills shortage and our lack of ambition. To top it all, they have warned us that the dearth of hi-tech engineering skills in our economy may hold them back.
The skills shortage is not a problem confined to the crucially important energy sector, it's systemic. We need more engineers and scientists.
To compete internationally, companies, and more broadly economies, need to design, make, and sell things that people in other countries want. In other words, they need to export world-beating inventions, developing valuable intellectual property in the process. The Chancellor wants to increase exports to £1trillion by 2020. But how, when we are importing expertise and it is predicted that we will have a deficit of 200,000 engineers by 2015?
We see the withering effects of the shortage on our doorstep. Dyson is looking for an extra 650 engineers to keep us ahead of the rest, fill our 25 year technology pipeline, and power our growth around the world. Trust me; it is a continual battle to find the brightest and best people - it is delaying our engineering teams, and holding back our ambitious plans. We are not alone, the UK's research intensive companies are also on the hunt - if they can't find the skills here, they will move elsewhere.
David Willetts, Minister of State for Universities and Science, has recognised that there is a crisis and announced at the Conservative Party Conference a £200million fund for science and engineering capital projects at universities. This is a bold policy which shows the government is cottoning on to the urgency of the situation - it has the potential to make the study of the subject more appealing to the brightest minds.
But it will not be enough on its own. The government must encourage more people to study engineering at all levels, but crucially incentivise them - financially - at university level. They must support our future engineers with generous bursaries to study the subject and reduced fees.
They should remove the immigration cap for the brightest and best, and make a special science and engineering visa. The problem, is that we are fast approaching a point where 80% of postgraduate engineering positions at British universities are taken by students from outside the UK. Our peculiar visa system means that these bright engineers and scientists, given a world class education in our universities, can't stay here when they finish their studies. We are training them up, only to send them packing - to compete with us. It's madness.
A recent report on inventiveness shows that France, Germany and Switzerland out-invent the UK in Europe. Not good for national morale, nor our exports (maybe the Germans, but surely not the French too!). But it's hardly a surprise when Britain produces only 12,000 graduate engineers from its universities each year - France produces nearly four times that number.
You see, the French value their engineers. Engineers stand proud, are held in high esteem and encouraged by projects like nuclear power and high-speed rail - which start as national projects, but soon become some of their most successful exports. Nuclear power, to our cost, is a case in point. As a result there is a generation of young French students, gagging to study engineering at university. The fact that one can become an engineer without going into debt unsurprisingly helps too.
It gets even scarier for Britain beyond Europe. India graduates 1.2million engineers a year. Iran and the Philippines each produce more engineers than the UK. In Singapore, 40% of all graduates are engineers. Why? Because the government incentivises them. The bait? Excellent prospects, some hard cash and encouragement from highly skilled (and paid) teachers.
There are few more inspiring careers anyone could hope for. Singapore is sending its engineers underground to build revolutionary subterranean communities - expressways, universities and even an ammunition bunker - the world's first containerised facility designed within a heavily urbanized area, requiring 90% less sterilised land than above ground facilities. They are investing in high-technology and exporting it to the world.
By comparison, Britain is tweaking around the edges. We need to be more ambitious and bold.
So the Chancellor is right to want to boost our exports, but to do so we need to boost our expertise and put our faith in engineers. Invest in engineering and science degrees to help solve the graduate deficit and stop the madness of sending highly trained foreign expertise home. Let's talk about the issues on infrastructure and ensure that in the future it is UK firms that build our nuclear power stations, design our trains, and export the technology of the future.
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