Science & Technology Graduates

The UK must both sustain the demand for science & technology graduates and ensure that there are then enough to meet it!

It’s really disappointing to see that over 55 per cent of students are still not considering a career in science or technology. Unless something is done to entice more students into these sectors, the chances of meeting future requirements for newly skilled engineers and scientists looks very slim. The UK is already losing business to Far Eastern countries that are building their industrial bases as fast as we are frittering ours away. If this continues the situation could soon become irreversible.

The die is already cast: even if we turn over a new leaf right now, it won’t have an impact until the next decade. We need to think strategically about the problems we’re going to be meeting in the twenties and beyond. We’re not going to conjure up a generation of well-educated, experienced graduate engineers in a few short years, particularly as no-one’s yet figured out what to do about the basic problem of uptake numbers.

Part of the issue is public perception of scientists and engineers. The common, poor stereotypes are continuously reinforced by an often ignorant and careless media sector. Even if the media were more neutral towards technologists, they would still be no match for the cult of ‘celebrity’. Why do we apparently care so much about the thoughts of those who know so little? Here’s a question to which we all know the answer. Who would a chat show host rather ask for opinions on climate change for example, a star of Eastenders or Casualty, or someone with a PhD in climatology?

As with so many things in this country, much of the problem stems from societal status. How many parents would be happy to encourage their children into a career in engineering? More likely, they would prefer their offspring to pursue careers as merchant bankers, lawyers or accountants.

So how do we remove the staid stigma attached to engineering and science careers and make them more appealing to the younger generation? A few years ago the Government attempted to attract more science and maths trainee teachers with a cash incentive, but this didn’t treat the root cause of the problem. I think the remedy has to go much deeper. We need to instil some spirit and pride back into the country and remember that the world doesn’t owe us a living. Despite living in a multi-cultural society, the fact remains that we’re a country in a world of many other countries, all of whom are competing with us for a higher standard of living.

The only way we can maintain our comfortable lifestyles is by earning the money to support them and continuing to innovate, as UK plc. If all we do is stack supermarket shelves before going home to watch celebs on the television, how long is it going to be before we no longer have food to waste, and money to burn on foreign holidays, electronic toys and all the things that supposedly make us happy? We have no natural right to have a better lifestyle than those living in third world countries that are less fortunate than ourselves. Our creature comforts won’t disappear overnight, but unless we understand how we got them in the first place, and how to maintain them, they will certainly continue to be eroded – perhaps much faster than we expect.

Many youngsters feel they are taking an easier option by avoiding science and engineering, but when they leave university and realise that competition is fierce in popular industries such as media and entertainment that realisation comes far too late. Politicians need to do more to stimulate our technology industries, and we all need to play our part in ensuring that we have the human capital to sustain them.

[This article was published in Engineering on Campus for the week of 28 Sep 10 – www.engineeringoncampus.co.uk and also in Machinery Market for the week of 21 Oct 10 – www.machinery-market.co.uk.  A version has also appeared as a Letter to the Editor of Business First (Q4 2010 Vol 3 No 4 ]

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