For decades, Britain's engineers were world-famous. Expertly formed by apprenticeships and universities, they stood for all that was inventive and resourceful in this country. Yet another way this small island punched above its weight - on sheer ingenuity.
Today, we all accept our worrying deficit in this area - the UK does not have enough engineers. It does not have enough technicians. And the longer we allow that, the more we lose out on the accumulated know-how that fosters new advances in technology that fuels our industrial base and thus our export trade.
At the root of the issue, we are just not producing enough new talent. There is a supply and demand mismatch. Yet Britain has one of the highest rates of youth unemployment in the developed world. Worse, it has been rising faster than any other country in the G8 during of the current recession.
We on the demand side have not helped ourselves. Too few British companies have sponsored apprentice and graduate programmes over the last decade. Yet these schemes, and the investment in skills they represent, are critical to our ability to compete globally for exports and thus drive our economic growth.
If Britain is to rebuild and sustain a vibrant engineering industry, we must wake up to global reality. We must act, and rapidly. Figures show that India and China far outstrip us in producing talent in this sector - but I first heard these kinds of statistics ten years ago.
At QinetiQ, we feel we have both a social responsibility and a business imperative to invest in the younger generation - to equip them with the skills which enable them to develop productive, creative professions. And we recognise that apprentices - after practical training and induction into a company - are just as valuable as graduates. They may not have the same qualifications, but they contribute actively from day one as they build hands-on practical experience.
Because innovation is not just about creating new products - that's only one dimension. We need to raise our national productivity and that means process innovation: the adoption of good new ideas to drive our competitive edge internationally. Apprentices, deployed in the right way and nurtured, can support this with their fresh ideas and insights.
And bringing on young people re-vitalises the workplace. It injects passion and energy into teams and makes for a more exciting exchange of ideas, a better place to work.
At QinetiQ, we have made a public declaration of our commitment to apprentices. From 2013, we will quadruple the number of apprentices taken on from 25 to 100 each year. We are also increasing the number of graduates we take on from 60 to 75. To have a thriving and balanced UK economy, we need well educated, well trained people to drive our industries. But to achieve this, industry needs to get on and do something for itself.
How many CEOs are taking a view on the next five to ten years and looking at skills development and putting cash into it to make sure we remain at the forefront of engineering and innovation?
You can get caught up in many factors running a company. The cycle of financial reporting may exert short term pressures, but there are certain strategic choices which really shape the long term health of an enterprise. Ensuring you create the right talent base is the differentiator.
Every company should have a clear statement of intent on what it is they are doing to enhance the skills of their people. There needs to be a concerted effort in developing people so that they can add value, to the benefit of their business but also national economy as a whole. Collectively that will determine whether we in the UK can retain talent and thus whether we succeed internationally, or not.
Over the years, companies have acted in concert to boost initiatives such as charitable giving and equality of opportunity. What I'd like to see is the equivalent to ensure we invest in developing our national pool of next-generation British engineering talent.
It has to come from the top. Actions speak louder than words.
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