15/03/2013 13:40 GMT | Updated 15/05/2013 06:12 BST

The Importance of Science and Engineering Education to Our Society Is Ever-Growing

It may not be a new message but it is one of ever-growing importance - scientists and engineers are vital to our economy and society. Their knowledge and skills are in high demand across a range of sectors, from manufacturing to financial services and everything in between.

So we need to ensure there are enough skilled people to meet future demand. There are various reasons for this, which my Department are currently exploring. We can enthuse young people with the vast range of exciting careers on offer to them. This is one the main aims of National Science and Engineering Week which kicked off on Friday.

One of the most inspiring and exciting areas of science and engineering is space technology, from building satellites for disaster monitoring to developing components for space exploration missions. It's one of the 'eight great technologies' first described by the Chancellor in his speech at the Royal Society in November.

It's also an area in which the UK is truly world-class, thanks to leading companies like Surrey Satellite Technology Limited and Astrium, and cutting edge R&D facilities like RAL Space at Harwell Oxford. The UK space industry is growing at an average of 8 per cent a year - despite the recession - and employs almost 30,000 people. This means that there is a growing demand from companies for highly-skilled individuals.

On Friday, Loughborough College and the National Space Academy announced the launch of the first ever higher apprenticeship in space engineering. The pioneering, foundation degree-level course will feature lots of hands-on experience and be developed in partnership with business to ensure it provides relevant training to meet their needs.

Companies like Astrium and RAL Space are already using space engineering apprentices, some of whom I met on my visit to Harwell Oxford today, but this new, higher-level course will directly address the demand for more advanced skills. It also provides an alternative way to a university degree for those wanting a more vocational route into work.

The Prime Minister said on Monday on a visit to the Mercedes-Benz Apprentice Academy that he wants it to be the new norm for young people to either go to university or go into an apprenticeship - like it is in Germany. And we know that apprentices bring huge benefits to businesses. BAE Systems said that their apprentices provide skills that can't be found elsewhere on the market and often show greater loyalty to the company. They also have excellent career progression. And a report from the Centre for Economics and Business Research on Monday forecasted that between 2012-13 and 2021-22, 3.8 million people will complete an apprenticeship, contributing an estimated £3.4 billion to the UK economy a year in productivity gains by 2022.

There's plenty going on to get people interested in space engineering as a career. I recently announced that the UK is investing £88 million in the world's largest ever optical telescope, the European Extremely Large Telescope. This international science collaboration will be a truly impressive feat of engineering, with a mirror 39 metres if diameter and producing images 16 times sharper than the Hubble space-based telescope. Our investment will ensure UK scientists and engineers are heavily involved in the construction and operation of the telescope. In fact, UK industry has already won £9 million worth of contracts, and that figure is predicted to increase as much as ten fold before 2023 when construction is expected to be completed.

The UK Space Agency is investing £1.2 billion in some of Europe's biggest after agreement was reached at the European Space Agency's Ministerial Council in Naples back in November. This will strengthen the UK's role in a number of areas, including telecommunications and Earth observation satellites, and secure around £1 billion of orders per year for British businesses.

This is just a snapshot of what is going on in this fascinating high tech industry, and we now need to ensure we have the right people to continue this success. This new higher apprenticeship will be an important part of this, and I urge interested companies and prospective students to find out more. I also urge people to look at the National Science and Engineering Week events near them. Who knows, it might encourage you to boldly go where you've never gone before.