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Attracting the Right Talent to Engineering - From Stem to Steam

15/01/2015 11:50 GMT | Updated 16/03/2015 09:59 GMT

Our national security and our future competitiveness and prosperity all depend on bringing more people into engineering at all levels. But we need rather different skills from the conventional ones engineering has sought in the past and this is widely understood.

There is increasing talk of attracting new blood to engineering. Good.

After the Perkins Review of Engineering Skills, the Higher Education Funding Council for England is working with engineering professional and regulatory bodies over the next two years to develop an engineering conversion pilot. The plan is to enable qualified non-engineering graduates to pursue a career in engineering.

But we need to go much further

In a world where the availability of public investment for innovation and research will be curtailed, tomorrow's engineers need to come up with better, faster, leaner products and find ways to spin out technology quickly and unglamorously.

Above all they can only be successful if they learn to listen to and understand the customer - who is king.

This requires the softer skills which are sorely underestimated in most engineering degrees.

These skills are fostered far more effectively in the humanities where students are taught how to handle ambiguity and 'grey' rather than purely work in black and white. The best engineers must understand people as well as inanimate objects.

Communicating this message will help attract more young women into engineering too.

But even that is not enough.

To paraphrase Plato - creativity is the mother of innovation.

Britain doesn't just need engineers of great technical ability. It needs engineers who can create, innovate and challenge. How can engineering be understood without design?

The buildings of my hero, Brunel, works like the great Maidenhead Bridge or Paddington station, are not just technical masterpieces, but monuments of outstanding beauty.

The relationship between art and engineering is symbiotic - when they work together, British engineers are the envy of the world.

As Jonathan Glancey wrote in the Guardian,

"Without the late Peter Rice, the brilliant Arup engineer, there might well have been no wave-like roofs cresting the Sydney Opera House, nor a Pompidou Centre as we know it."

And the success of products like Jaguar Land Rover's cars or Dyson cleaners owes a huge amount to their aesthetic qualities as well as their technical brilliance.

What does this mean for today's engineering graduates? The global jobs market is changing rapidly. According to Queen Mary University London's Engineering Department,

"It is becoming increasingly apparent that in future design graduates will need to be both artist and scientist, or at least, be able to understand how they may cross the divide. In the future there will be a growing need for designers who are educated as both engineering professionals (who can understand and can apply the latest technological developments), and designers (who understand creative processes, and are able to research and address questions of the contextual relevance and the appropriateness of design)."

Brighton Fuse, is a project which describes itself as starting

"... with the belief that by connecting the arts, humanities and design with digital and ICT, then creativity and innovation can be enhanced."

It, and others like it, have shown that when creativity is placed at the heart of the technical process, businesses flourish and grow faster than their competitors.

Organisations like Google and Apple are calling for graduates who are able to think creatively as well as technically. Remember that Steve Jobs was more creative designer than technician, spending his college years attending creative classes.

According to the CBI,

"It is essential that alongside specific technical skills we also equip people with the creative thinking and entrepreneurial skills that help facilitate innovation and problem solving."

As Dr Steph Hawke of Newcastle University has said,

"The arts can hone the creative sensibilities required to appreciate STEM and moreover, the creative methods intrinsic to the arts, can help young people to exploit the delight of discovery in the STEM subjects. The arts can be the tools with which to mine this gold so that young people can truly enjoy STEM."

So engineering would gain if the 'A' of Arts subjects were more closely integrated with the STEM subjects.

STEM subjects have an image problem - especially among young women.

Taking this broader approach will help address that image problem and should be a major plank of the marketing campaign we so urgently need.

It's time to put the A in STEM.

STEAM would be quickly seen as making real-world, creative connections between subjects in schools.

In combination, the STEAM subjects will help to develop job-ready, creative, analytical and inventive problem-solvers, and give us the engineers the UK needs.

To shape the future it is time for engineers to look back some five hundred years

To look back to perhaps the most forward looking engineer and artist the world has ever produced - Leonardo de Vinci - and to embrace STEAM.

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