University of Cambridge Sir Kirby Laing professor of civil engineering Lord Mair has called for increased investment in engineering innovation, skills and training during a recent debate in the House of Lords addressing the economy and UK prospects.
The session was opened by commercial secretary to the Treasury Lord O’Neill of Gatley who set the scene for the debate by describing the economy as making good progress while acknowledging sources of productivity weakness and a period of global uncertainty.
Mair’s speech during the debate pointed to the vital role of engineering innovation to strengthen the economy, and the problem of the growing engineering skills crisis. “Engineering impacts all our lives in so many ways,” he said. “It accounts for at least 20% of gross value added for the UK economy, and some estimates are significantly higher.”
Mair also contended that successful engineering is underpinned by innovation, which is key to the future success of the economy.
Highlighting the government’s role in encouraging innovation, Mair cited levels of investment in research and development (R&D) made by competing countries in the G7, where the UK remains 12th among the 28 member states of Europe for R&D investment. “If UK R&D investment in science and technology were to be increased to the levels of Germany, ie 3% of GDP, the benefits to the economy would be huge,” he said.
Mair offered an example of the potential of investment in this area, acknowledging the worth of Innovate UK, the UK’s innovation agency, which funds, supports and connects innovation businesses to accelerate sustainable economic growth. “Innovate UK’s schemes show substantial leverage, with an average of £6 returned to the economy in gross value added (GVA) for every £1 invested,” he explained.
Mair described analysis by Engineering UK as “seriously worrying”, projecting as it does a shortfall of around 70,000 advanced technicians and engineers for each of the next 10 years.
Recognising the role of a skilled workforce as a catalyst for engineering innovation, Mair praised the Engineering Talent Project. This was developed and is run by the Royal Academy of Engineering and backed by major engineering organisations. Its mandate is to bring a single, coordinated response to the skills challenge, and to communicate the breadth of opportunity made possible by a career in engineering. “Our economy simply will not thrive if our key industries fail to recruit the young men and women engineers that are needed for them to grow,” said Mair. “Without them we will not innovate, and without innovation we will lose out to the global competition.”
Mair called for key organisations to work together to increase investment in engineering innovation, skills and training. “Real change will only be achieved by coordination between government, employers and the engineering institutions,” he said. “The urge for a coordinated approach on engineering has been a cri de coeur from industry for some time, and there is now a real opportunity for government to play its part.”