Despite the weak pound, manufacturing had its worst month for more than two years in April, according to the Office of National Statistics, which saw output down 1.5% month-on-month.
The challenge for UK plc
There was some better news for the engineering and architectural sectors, with turnover and orders up compared to the first quarter of 2010, though still down on where we were in 2009 or 2008.
This presents a significant challenge for UK plc. When we examined our skills base in a survey of academics and students in engineering, we found that people see us as leaders in academic standards but lagging behind in terms of funding and R&D investment.
There is still an evident gap between the inventive spirit shown by the future Edisons and Teslas, and making those ideas into commercially viable propositions. Lecturers are aware of this, as they place the UK fifth both in terms of career prospects and being a leading market for engineering.
You might say fifth place is pretty respectable for a mid-sized economy, but engineering technology has traditionally been a lifeblood of Britain, and we will need to invest significantly to maintain our international competitiveness.
‘The danger is no longer that we are being challenged by emerging economies on labour costs, but rather on skills and expertise at the higher end of the sector’
It is also necessary to build up sectors so we are not as reliant on the financial services industry in future. China and India are seen as market leaders, producing an estimated one million engineering graduates a year (although these figures are disputed).
Whatever the true number, the danger is no longer that we are being challenged by emerging economies on labour costs, but rather on skills and expertise at the higher end of the sector.
President Obama is under no illusions − recently announcing a plan to train 10,000 new engineers through a public-private partnership.
When asked what the UK needs to do, the answers won’t shock many:students mention more investment in higher and further education, more government funding for the sector and more highly skilled people to work in it.
More surprisingly, the question of status came up frequently, with one of the most important factors being developing a positive societal attitude regarding the tangible benefits of engineering.
Young people might look blankly when you mention civil engineering but will be engaged if you talk about the challenges of building Crossrail or the Olympic stadium.
Get some glamour back into the profession
TV series like Richard Hammond’s Engineering Connections can help to demonstrate the practical value of the sector to a wider audience. A recent episode on the Airbus A380 demonstrated how ordinary technologies such as a bicycle pump or a bow and arrow provided the inspiration for designing the world’s largest aircraft.
Shaking off the slightly fusty image of engineering can help, which is why it was so interesting to see modern engineers like Steve Jobs and James Dyson lauded in our list of engineering heroes.
There are specific challenges for government around funding of course, but the task is one for businesses and wider society to address. If you’ll excuse the pun, bridging the gap between inventiveness and implementation is something companies can play a real part in.
- Mark Elborne is president and CEO of GE UK