The recently published Perkins Report (1) highlights again the woeful state of the supply of qualified people especially females into engineering and the manufacturing industries. As usual it is a worthy and at times an insightful document but it joins innumerable ones addressing the same issue published over many decades. This country shows very few world class attributes but one is the ability to commission committees to write reports focussing on strategically important themes whose recommendations the government of the day or its departments then fail to seriously consider or action the recommendations and as a result no meaningful resolutions of the presenting problems results. Inevitably the reports after being considered by government departments or its advisers are placed on shelves where they gather dust. Many reports, Committees of Enquiry and working parties over many decades, indeed centuries, have identified the long term problems of low take up by students at all levels of education and training in technical and vocational orientated subjects and careers in engineering and manufacturing. Too often many of these reports and enquiries create vapour trails with no real substance or long term impact and too often fail to identify the more fundamental problems that have created the situation. At the heart of this long standing problem is the reluctance indeed at times hostility towards studying such subjects as mathematics and the physical sciences and I have highlighted over a number of years the prevalence of this cultural element.
What always intrigues me when such reports are published is how they are received by the politicians and some individuals; inevitably they welcome them and provide the press with all sorts of sound bites promising to carefully consider the recommendations and take positive action but rarely does any real meaningful action occur. Even more perplexing and depressing is their inability to recognise and acknowledge that previous reports have highlighted similar concerns, which is another classic example of political amnesia! Finally what really gets to me is, as in this case where senior politicians state that urgent action must be taken before it becomes a crisis, and the reality is it has been critical for decades; a wonderful example of how politics and politicians are detached from the real world. The fundamental causes of the crisis in the supply of qualified people into engineering and manufacturing are complex and to be resolved the following issues must be faced and acted on:
- A long standing cultural hostility towards scientific, mathematical and technical subjects must be recognised as it has resulted in failure to create a home grown workforce – this was recently identified by a survey showing that 20% of skilled people in employment are immigrants.
- To resolve the problem a long term and consistent set of policies need to be implemented recognising that it cannot be a short term fix and it must be accepted could take a generation before positive results are forthcoming. Also throwing money briefly at the problem will also fail to deliver long term solutions; any investment must be carefully managed and monitored long term.
- Colleges and training providers need to be adequately supported over a long period and a comprehensive set of apprenticeship programmes introduced across key industries ensuring that parity of esteem is at last given to technical and vocational qualifications
- One worrying feature following the financial crisis of 2008 is that people leaving the workforce now are more qualified and educated than those currently entering employment – this reflects the declining standards of education and training in this country over a couple of generations and concurrent with an emerging freelance economy which creates employment that is part time, poorly paid and often requiring low skills. Instead an economy should be created that is based on sustainable skilled jobs and living wages i.e. real jobs and real wages.
The Perkins Report does not highlight these key factors rather, preferring to provide a set of recommendations tempered as usual with nods towards the high regard they attach to the so called academic qualifications and that Britain has a great record in engineering achievement – true – but as history shows many of the great engineers, inventors of the industrial revolution never attended any formal educational institution (2). They were self taught or came through an apprenticeship programme. In addition history is replete with examples where many great inventions and their inventors were seldom supported by the banks or government e.g. the jet engine, hover craft, the tilting train.
It will be interesting to see if the Perkins Report has any real lasting impact on this strategically important issue.
- J. Perkins’. DBIS. November 2013.
- See references to this on this website.