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How Can We Encourage Young People to Pursue Engineering Courses and Careers to Preempt the Skills Shortage?

26/06/2013 13:50 BST | Updated 26/08/2013 10:12 BST

By the time today's primary school pupils are of working age the UK will need over two million additional engineers, according to Engineering UK. If we can't fulfill these roles, they will move abroad, with devastating repercussions for the UK economy. How can we encourage young people to pursue the engineering courses and careers so desperately needed to preempt this shortage? In addressing the skills shortage, I believe that there are three key barriers that are preventing young people from considering engineering careers: at school, where young people are reluctant to study science, technology engineering and maths (STEM) subjects; at university, when graduates are again failing to choose STEM courses; and finally, through the career choices that potential engineers are making.

At school, there is a common misconception amongst children that STEM subjects are uninteresting and cannot lead to lucrative or interesting jobs. This is where the problem begins. Research from Engineering UK has shown that 49% of 7-11 year-olds believe that being an engineer would be 'boring' and that they would prefer more immediately visible careers as teachers, footballers and doctors. A study that we carried out at the IET a couple of years ago supports these findings unveiling a number of 'switch-off' factors. The report showed that young people see STEM subjects to be irrelevant, harder and less rewarding than other subjects; that they are reluctant to take subjects they may not achieve highly in; and that STEM subjects are viewed as 'nerdy' or 'geeky' - certainly not subjects to make you stand out from your peers or be accepted into the cool gang.

At university the barriers are much the same, with engineering and other STEM courses perceived not just to be long and hard, but to be considerably more difficult to get onto, requiring higher grades than arts and humanities based subjects. Without STEM qualifications it is, for obvious reasons, difficult for young people to take the next step into careers as engineers. Unhappily, even those who do have STEM degrees can all too easily be enticed into the apparently more glamorous and better paid worlds of banking and consultancy.

Too many young people are missing out on great jobs and careers because of misconceptions about the engineering industry - misconceptions that are very much developed world misconceptions. In contrast, in developing countries, STEM related careers are frequently seen to be a route to improving life for many. So, what can we do to address these issues? Organisations such as the IET, the government and many others, have already implemented schemes to support STEM teaching and careers advice at schools. But it's about more than just the way that STEM is taught - it's about how we inspire people about the bigger picture. At every stage of the career path, we need to emphasise the creative, interesting and fulfilling nature of engineering courses and careers. Jobs in engineering could literally see you designing space missions or building racing cars! We also need to highlight the career potential of engineering careers, and show that they can pay well and earn status. Infact, pay for full-time engineers is in the top 30% of UK salaries.

For our part, one of the important roles of the IET is to catalyse and promote interactions between industry and academia. In the current economic climate, the flow of ideas, knowledge, and skilled people from universities into industry is more important than at any time in recent history. The role to be played by the IET in this respect assumes even greater importance and we have made a significant commitment to the next generation of engineers.

We have recently launched a new scholarships programme aimed at those embarking upon an IET accredited engineering or technology UK degree course in 2013. The Diamond Jubilee Scholarships are named in honour of the IET's patron, Her Majesty the Queen, and aim to help address the STEM skills shortage in the UK. The main aim of the initiative is to encourage the brightest and best students to study IET accredited courses, which will put them on a path that is not only challenging and rewarding, but is also vital to future prosperity. We expect that 500 to 700 students may be eligible for these scholarships, which will entitle them to £1,000 for each year of their course. Over 2,000 have registered to apply, with already 500 submitting their applications. The application deadline is tomorrow (27 June).

With demand for more than two million engineers over the next few decades, it has never been more important to encourage young people to like science, to choose to study science and, ultimately, to choose careers in engineering. There is no simple solution, but I'd like to urge engineers to be proud of what they do and to allow this pride to inspire our future generations of engineers.