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Cable promises to tackle shortage of skilled engineers

Tackling a shortage of engineers is a top priority for the UK government, business secretary Vince Cable said in a speech to business leaders in London on 19 November.

Addressing the annual conference of the Confederation of British Industry Cable said that “time and again, large manufacturing companies come to my department and tell me they are worried about looming shortages of skilled engineers. It is one of my absolute key priorities as business secretary to address this problem”.

In a statement to coincide with the speech, which had been widely trailed beforehand, Katja Hall, the CBI’s chief policy director said “over 40 per cent of firms in sectors like engineering are already struggling to recruit skilled people, and this situation will only get worse if we don’t take swift action.”

Also in a statement Philip Greenish, chief executive of the Royal Academy of Engineering, said: “We estimate that around 1.25 million science, engineering and technology professionals and technicians are needed by 2020, including a high proportion of engineers, to support the UK’s economic recovery.”

Cable said that John Perkins, the chief scientific adviser in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, is working with the RAEng and others to work out what can be done to improve diversity and gender equality in engineering, and to help people return to careers in the profession.

Cable also highlighted the effect of investments by the Higher Education Funding Council for England in increasing the supply of and demand for strategically important subjects within science, technology, engineering and maths.

“This year, when we introduced the new student financing system, demand to study engineering held up better than for any other subject,” he noted. This was an indication that students are taking an increasingly hard-headed view about their career options, he said.

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council has invested £12 million in doctoral training programmes to “provide specialist research and technologists specifically for advanced manufacturing”, he said, and this will reinforce the £300m Research Partnership Investment Fund. In turn, the fund “will be used to leverage over £1 billion investment in science and R&D collaborations.”

Cable said these interventions are “designed to stimulate innovation, reduce the risks associated with investment in new technologies and R&D, and bolster the skills pipeline all the way along. The ultimate aim is to nurture a thriving innovation ecosystem which attracts the most talented people to careers in engineering and science”.

Cable acknowledged the influence of the CBI’s comments at the beginning of the government’s deficit reduction cuts.

“Even though we have managed to protect the science budget from serious cuts we must not be complacent. We have noted the criticisms in the past from the CBI that the valuable Smart Awards and Knowledge Transfer Partnership have been squeezed and we are trying to give priority to supporting innovation when we have opportunities to invest.”

Cable expressed delight with the progress of the Technology Strategy Board and the introduction of the Catapult centres.

The government is giving considerable financial support to engineering and science, he said, and described the research funding ringfence as the absolute basic minimum needed to protect Britain’s competitiveness.

In a statement Paul Hardaker, chief executive of the Institute of Physics, said that the ringfence is the minimum required, but stressed that “the scale of funding is also critical. While the flat cash settlement for science in 2010 was helpful in difficult times, two more years of this will not only undermine the government’s ambitions for growth, but will also significantly damage the value and competitiveness of our science base.”

Concluding his speech Cable said: “I am a realist and I do recognise that the initiatives I have outlined will take time to bear fruit. I know, too, that more needs to be done to reverse the constraints on skills that have resulted from the historic serious lack of investment. It will be necessary to win battles in government in order to prioritise this agenda.”