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Engineering Careers

Volume 558: debated on Wednesday 13 February 2013

Thank you, Mr Bayley. It is a pleasure to have this debate under your chairmanship.

Last year, I visited a small business in my constituency known as Autotech. I was incredibly impressed by that business, so much so that I wanted to call this debate today. That was because I was not only impressed by the business, but incredibly concerned about the problems that that growing business faces. We had hoped that its CEO, Andy Robinson, would be able to get here today, but I think that unfortunately his journey has been blighted by the problems on First Capital Connect this afternoon. He will probably arrive during the debate.

Autotech represents what many companies should be striving towards in the UK. It is a small business, specialising in supplying control systems for automated manufacturing and distribution operations. I hope that no hon. Member intervenes to ask me to explain that further, because I left after my visit to the business that afternoon none the wiser about what it actually did. I saw lots of robots, graphics, wires, computers and machines. I know that it has something to do with cars. It is incredibly high tech and very impressive.

What also impressed me was the ethos of the company and the staff. When I say to a member of staff, “How long have you been here?”, and they say, “I’ve been here since the day the company started,” I know that it is a good company. When I said, “What do you think of the boss?”—he was coming around with me—they were all glowing, and not just because he was stood behind my shoulder. It was obviously a company that has very good employment practices, so I was incredibly shocked to discover that it has had to turn down millions of pounds’ worth of business in the past few years. It has had to turn that business down because it relies, obviously, on well trained, highly professional, skilled engineers—that is what its business is about—but its inability to attract people to fill those jobs is preventing the company from growing. It cannot grow any more, even though it wants to. It has the capacity, the location and the orders coming in, but it cannot grow because it cannot get the people it needs to do the jobs. The company not only cannot get the people to do the jobs that are available today, but it has problems getting people to come and train from school, as apprentices, who would enable it to project growth for the future.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this very important and timely debate. Is she aware of the ten-minute rule Bill put forward by our hon. Friend the Member for Mid Worcestershire (Peter Luff) in the House today? It addresses very much the issue of getting expertise into schools. Will she comment on the aspect of it that requires the governing bodies of schools to include local employers and particularly engineering employers? We are already seeing that in Worcestershire, with Yamazaki Mazak and Worcester Bosch supporting local schools, and I think that it could be encouraged much more widely.

Yes. I will cover that issue later, but I shall just mention it now. One thing that I did when I was at Autotech was put it in touch with Wootton school in my constituency. Wootton has an application at the moment for a STEM—science, technology, engineering and maths—academy. It seemed to me that it would be a perfect match if the school and the business worked together. The business could get involved in the school and take its business opportunities there. A bit like businesses used to do with “milk rounds” at universities years ago, Autotech could do a milk round in the school and try to nab them young and get them more interested in a different form of career. My hon. Friend is absolutely right: it would be an ideal solution to get engineers as members of the governing bodies of schools, if only to influence how teachers think about the career prospects for their pupils in the future.

As co-chair of the associate parliamentary manufacturing group, I can tell hon. Members that nearly every meeting I have attended talks about the shortage of skills and particularly the challenge of recruiting high-quality engineers. We often try to intervene too late, when young people have already chosen the subjects that will decide their future. Does my hon. Friend agree that we need to focus even more resources on the early years of secondary education and perhaps even on the primary stage to support the sort of initiative that we are discussing?

That is a very good point. I had not thought of going down the age range even further, but obviously that is a point for consideration.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing the debate. I worked as an engineer myself before coming into Parliament, so I know not only the fulfilling careers that engineering provides, but the importance of inspiring young people into engineering. On that point, I urge the hon. Lady to look at a scheme called Primary Engineer, which was launched in the north-east last Friday—I believe that it exists across the country—and which puts businesses into primary schools, because that is where we really need to start inspiring young people into engineering.

I will certainly take that point on board and feed it back to Andy Robinson.

I am impressed by how Autotech has tackled the problem itself, by setting up its own Autotech academy, its own apprenticeship scheme within the business, its own school within the business. It has been reaching out to schools and advertising the academy as a way to bring young people in and start doing that work—the very things that we are talking about—but it still finds attracting young people incredibly difficult.

Our country has a rich heritage in this area. When I was a girl—I am quite old now—[Hon. Members: “No!”] I am afraid I am. In Liverpool when I was a girl growing up, careers in engineering—electrical engineering, mechanical engineering and civil engineering—were very attractive to people I was at school with. In fact, those were the kinds of career that boys in particular wanted to go into.

I thank the hon. Lady for bringing this very important issue to the House. Shorts Bombardier in my constituency offers many people great opportunities for apprenticeships in aeronautical engineering and a career for the rest of their lives. That is similar to what happens at the company to which she has referred. One thing that disappoints me is that only one in 10 girls pursue a career in engineering. Does the hon. Lady believe that we could do more to encourage young girls to make the same choice of career?

I was coming to that point. Engineering was a career choice for boys when I was at school. It was not one that girls were ever interested in, but when I was at Autotech, I realised that such a high-tech form of engineering could be quite attractive to girls. There are so many more opportunities open to both genders now. I know that some girls are involved, but I cannot imagine that we would see many girls wanting to get involved—I do not know what form of engineering the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) did—in mechanical engineering. We just do not go into garages and see girls with oily rags.

The figures do indeed bear it out. This is a very important issue, and I am glad that the hon. Lady has raised it. However, I am doing a lot of work in and around south Yorkshire focused particularly on getting more girls and women into engineering. Perhaps I can share at a later date some information with the hon. Lady, but it is generally about both sensitising the girls and getting the companies to look at what they are doing that in the past has put girls off.

It is important to note that my hon. Friend is not too old at all: she cares passionately about apprentices and is a very strong role model. In the north-west yesterday, BAE Systems, whose headquarters for military aviation are in my constituency, announced 70 engineering and business apprentices. I know from working with these young people that they are absolutely top quality, and they are the type of apprenticeships to which my hon. Friend refers.

My hon. Friend informed me earlier today of the opportunities that are available in his constituency. I know his constituency very well indeed and I know what an excellent MP he is, because I read about him in the local paper all the time—he is my mother’s MP. I know what an assiduous MP he is and I thank him for that intervention and letting me know about the jobs in his area.

One of the key arguments of the coalition Government is that the UK is in an international race in which we are competing with countries all over the world. We know how China, Brazil, India, Japan and other such countries are racing ahead of us in terms of what they offer, how they train people and how they get people into engineering from school, at a very young age. The bar is constantly being raised for UK businesses. John Cridland, director general of the CBI, has agreed with that. He pointed out that international competition is constantly raising the bar and that we need to seek a larger share of the global market. He has also said that he is surprised at how many young people lack basic skills, such as literacy and numeracy.

Even though education spending increased from £35.8 billion to £71 billion under the previous Government, the number of teenagers leaving school without basic GCSEs was, unfortunately, problematic and contributed to the skills gap and the gap in other qualities required for employment. People went to university to study media and other courses they saw as attractive, but behind the scenes some universities were setting up remedial centres to teach students basic reading and writing. Even if we manage to incentivise young people and make engineering an attractive option, that will not get over the fact that some of them might not have the basic maths and other skills required.

I applaud what the Secretary of State for Education has done, not only with education reform and academies, but in the rhetoric he has used in education debates. He is imploring schools and society to realise that we need much more rigorous standards in education and much more reform in the basic, core subjects, such as English, maths and science. We need to show young people that they can achieve in science and that it is an attractive subject that they can master.

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

On resuming—

For the benefit of Hansard, Mr Robinson has beaten the incompetence of First Capital Connect and—also for the benefit of First Capital Connect, which might see this debate—has now joined us.

Order. May I remind all hon. Members that there is a convention that one does not make reference to people in the Gallery?

I take that on board, Mr Bayley.

When the Division took place, I was speaking not so much about the reforms introduced by the Secretary of State for Education, as his rhetoric and dialogue about the need for courses to be more robust and for students to become more engaged in the core subjects of maths, science and English.

Does the hon. Lady agree that design and technology is one of the subjects at the core of this issue, because without it many students are not prepared for what they face in engineering?

I agree with the hon. Lady that design and technology is an important core subject in the overall context of engineering. As I have said, however, one problem is that, on leaving school, pupils lack the basic skills of numeracy and English that would enable them to achieve in design and technology and other subjects or give them the confidence they require to go into an engineering apprenticeship. They lack the basic core skills that would give them the confidence they need to move into that field. Although I recognise that design and technology is an important subject—one of my daughters did it—others take greater precedence because they are absolutely essential, core key subjects that every student needs to move on to whatever they want to do in life.

I thank my hon. Friend for securing this debate and for being so generous in taking interventions. She is absolutely right to highlight the importance of engineering, the shortage of female engineers and the essence of good qualifications early on. Does she agree that getting good sciences and maths is absolutely key? Does she recognise the good work being done by EDF Energy and Horizon in raising awareness of those needs, especially for the nuclear power engineering opportunities of the future with some 20,000 jobs at the three new nuclear power stations? Does she also agree that there are some great female role models? For example, the engineer behind the design of the world’s fastest vehicle, with which Squadron Leader Green broke the world record, was a woman. If we got women role models to go round schools, we would have more female engineers among the new ones coming forward.

My hon. Friend makes his points very eloquently, as usual. I fully endorse the point that it would be fantastic if female role models went round schools to promote engineering as a career path for young women. He mentioned bigger companies such as EDF. One problem for Autotech in my constituency is that it does not have the budgets or the reach of so big an organisation as EDF. People in my constituency do not even know that Autotech is there; neither did I until recently. It does not have the advertising and marketing budget to reach out and sell itself to young people, whereas EDF is fortunate enough to be able to do the milk round and offer a global package. I want to focus on the problems faced by small companies that need to grow and are growing, and that are receiving orders that they cannot fulfil because they have not yet reached the dizzy heights of organisations such as EDF, with all the accompanying infrastructure and finance. Autotech is not quite there yet, although it has grown from 200 to 350 employees in a short space of time.

On top of the problems in education, students simply do not see engineering as attractive. They see media studies and many other courses as attractive. In preparation for the debate, I looked at the university courses for which the most people apply through UCAS, and engineering is way down the list.

I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate, to which I am listening with great interest. Does she agree that engineering suffers from an image that is out of date? The image that girls, in particular, have of engineering is being clad in a boiler suit and working with heavy vehicles, engines and oil. Those things would not attract a woman to the industry. We have to change that. Much as I am fascinated by the English education system, in Scotland we have taken an approach called the curriculum for excellence, which brings engineering into schools. It has certainly proven useful.

I agree with everything that the hon. Gentleman has said, particularly the necessity of disabusing young women of the notion that engineering is about getting their nails dirty, or about carrying an old rag or wearing a boiler suit. Mechanical engineering has moved on from that, and it is now much more about electrical engineering. It is much more sophisticated and high tech. It is much more about the sort of thing that Autotech does, which, as I said, I cannot really explain in any great detail.

I put Autotech in touch with the Wootton Academy Trust in my constituency, which is currently applying to establish a science, technology, engineering and maths academy. As we touched on in the first half of the debate, it would be fantastic to see STEM academies and schools linking up with smaller businesses. As well as the big businesses that such schools will be attracted to because they provide sponsorship and—for want of a better word—the sexy image that goes with engineering, schools would do well to link with smaller businesses. The tendency will be for schools to work with bigger organisations.

Last summer’s Olympics, High Speed 2—although it is not popular with some Members—and Crossrail prove that we can do big engineering projects in this country. There will be a forward market for engineers, hopefully, if we can embrace engineering at the root, in schools and in small businesses. It is a feeding market, because if pupils train in small businesses, they might move up to bigger projects. There will always be a good living to be had in engineering, and there will always be good employers.

One thing that concerns me is that over the next decade, salaries across the world will level out as companies and countries compete with each other on a much more global stage. When young people choose a career and when they go to university or enter apprenticeships, they must keep their eye on what will employ them in the future and what will allow them to earn a living in the marketplace and progress as individuals. That is why organisations such as Autotech need help. We need to do what we can to incentivise schools. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills is already working hard in the area, but I hope that the Minister will tell us what the coalition can do to help link schools and small businesses to make engineering a much more attractive option for young people. In particular, I want to know what the coalition can do to help businesses such as Autotech to reach out to young people and let young people know that they are out there and that they offer good career opportunities.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bayley, and to respond to the debate. It is great to see so many Members here from across the House. There has been, I fear, an outbreak of consensus about the need to tackle the problem, and I am very much part of that. There is passion on both sides. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Nadine Dorries) on securing the debate. I know that we often have debates in this Chamber and on the Floor of the House, but raising awareness and constantly making the arguments that hon. Members have made today is an important part of the solution. I hope that through this debate we are helping to solve Britain’s problem of a shortage of engineers.

In the 10 minutes that I have, I will provide some context and go through some of the things that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills is doing to rise to the challenge and answer the shortfall that many Members have eloquently described. Many estimates have been made of the shortage of engineers in the country, and although it is impossible to put a precise figure on that shortage, it is clear that we need more engineers. We need those who are qualified at university level, both undergraduate and postgraduate, and those who are qualified through apprenticeships at technician level.

Over the past few years, steps have been made in the right direction. The number of engineering and manufacturing apprenticeships has risen to 60,000 starts in the past year, up from 25,000 starts a decade earlier. This year, the number of applications to university to study engineering is 127,000, which is up 8% on last year alone. The proportion of those applying to university to study computing, which is an important element of engineering, has risen even more sharply. At school, participation at GCSE in maths, physics and the sciences, which are an essential bedrock of engineering, has been rising sharply. The Department for Education, as well as BIS, is playing a big role in ensuring that the building blocks, which for too long have been deteriorating, are in place.

Let me set out the action that we are taking in four areas. First, we are making the whole skills system more focused on the needs of employers. The employer ownership of skills is important to ensure that we provide and support the skills that employers need.

I urge the Minister to consider working closely with schools, colleges and universities in areas where enterprise zones are developing and to focus on apprenticeships, particularly in engineering, in those areas.

That is an important point, and I will look at what more we can do in enterprise zones to add a skills element. The employer ownership strategy is about ensuring that we provide the skills that employers need. We have a conundrum in this country. Although youth unemployment is falling, it is still slightly less than 1 million, which is too high, but, at the same time, we have skills shortages. That tells me that the skills and education system has not worked to match up the supply and demand for skills.

Will the Minister join me in paying tribute to McLaren in my constituency, which helps to sponsor an annual technology and engineering prize? Indeed, the Prime Minister came the other year to give out the prize to the winning team. Not only glamorous technology companies such as McLaren, but every technology and engineering company should hold open days and become involved in such competitions, to engage young people and, indeed, their teachers to ensure that they are aware of the career options that are on offer and the sort of subjects that need to be studied to pursue those careers.

Absolutely. I pay tribute to what McLaren, and many other companies, are doing. That brings me on to my second point, which is about careers advice. The Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics Network, or STEMNET, is a network of 25,000 STEM ambassadors who go into schools. Where they go into schools and inspire the pupils, they can be a huge driver, by explaining the exciting things that are going on in modern engineering, and not only to boys but girls. After all, only 7% of those in engineering are female, and so the easiest way to increase the number of engineers is to have more of a balance, because if we are only recruiting—broadly speaking—from half the population, we are clearly missing a very important trick.

Competitions in skills are very important, too. The annual skills show, which was in Birmingham in 2012, is an extravaganza of brilliant exhibitions of high-level skills by highly trained people. There is also an element of competition to show the very best of British skills, as it leads on to the world skills competition. It is absolutely brilliant, and I encourage everybody to go and see it for themselves. Similarly, the Big Bang fair is a competition to drive the excitement of this agenda about engineering through schools.

In addition, the new duty on schools to provide independent and impartial advice and guidance to pupils from the age of 12 all the way up to 18 is very important. Ofsted is studying its implementation. It was introduced only last September, and this summer we will have a report from Ofsted on how it is going. So, as I say, the second element is careers advice and getting that right, and engaging with STEMNET in particular to get inspiring people into schools to inspire pupils about engineering.

The third element is reforming the skills system, so that it is more rigorous and more responsive. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid Bedfordshire talked about the need for more rigour in the schools system, but we also need to drive up rigour in the vocational qualifications area. We have done that by supporting and recognising only the highest quality vocational qualifications from 14 to 16 in the new accountability structures—they were set out by the Secretary of State for Education last week—but we also need to do that further up the age range.

In addition, we need to ensure that the skills system is responsive to the needs of employers, which brings us back to employer ownership of skills. In the field of apprenticeships, the Richard review very much drove down that track, and I am looking forward to responding to it with enthusiasm, because the vision set out by Doug Richard was a powerful one that argued for apprenticeships to be much closer to what employers need and for employers to be able to start up skills academies and apprenticeship qualifications. Autotech has started a skills academy. However, more broadly—not just in that single example—we need to have more apprenticeships with the qualifications, as well as the content, designed by employers themselves.

I encourage employers to respond to the Richard review and to engage with it, as we try to improve those qualifications. That is already happening in two areas. First, the Royal Academy of Engineering is introducing four new engineering qualifications for students aged 16, which I think will be very important. We hope that they will be high-quality. Secondly, we are introducing the technical baccalaureate at 18, which is an idea that has cross-party support.

Finally, I urge all Members to get involved in apprenticeship week. It starts on 11 March, and it will be a big, national celebration of what apprenticeships have achieved during their 600-year history and what they can achieve if we can reform them to make them better. I end by reiterating that the passion shown by Members of all parties today, and my passion, is a passion to ensure that we solve this problem, which has bedevilled our country for far too long.