Those of us who work or have worked in the advanced manufacturing and engineering sector know that the reality of a modern engineering workplace – clean factories, computer controls, product and service customisation – is far removed from the stereotype of a man in oily overalls wielding a spanner. It is a cutting edge, highly skilled sector which is always innovating. Engineering is ultimately about solving problems, and solving problems requires ingenuity and flexibility. To be an engineer is to apply intelligent thinking to the problems of today and tomorrow, always seeking to improve and always reducing inefficiencies, costs and waste.
Engineers work in all sectors of the economy, not just “Engineering”. Engineers are solving some of the greatest challenges our world faces: feeding a growing population; securing safe drinking water supplies; dealing with the challenges created by an ageing population. Engineers are tackling all of these challenges, and more – they’re doing it right here in the UK and around the globe.
Engineers are ingenious – that’s what the word means! We don’t shout about it nearly enough, but if we can show young people just what a difference they can make in society by becoming engineers, I think many more of them would be inspired to get into it. There is already a good base level of interest in the sector; young children are naturally inquisitive and a quarter of schoolchildren show real interest in becoming a scientist or an engineer. We need to help it to blossom, not wither.
Changing our communication would also help to correct the historic gender imbalance which persists within the sector. Semta’s own research shows that female engineers are most motivated by the prospect of interesting and useful work. We need to consider how we pitch the job opportunities to emphasise the need for creativity and problem solving skills. Some universities are already leading in this by changing their entry requirements, and if engineering employers were to follow suit they would encourage a more diverse pool of applicants and get better solutions from their more diverse workforce.
Modern engineering roles cannot be confined to a rigid set of duties and responsibilities anyway. The Industrial Digitalisation Review, chaired by Juergen Maier of Siemens UK and in which Semta is involved, is helping to piece together the skillset which the engineer of the future (and that future is closer than you may think) will need. The pace of change which the Fourth Industrial Revolution is unleashing will be quicker than anything we have seen before. Modern cloud-based technologies, combined with innovative production processes, are already making bespoke production on a mass production scale a reality. Engineering has to keep pace with social change, which has seen individual expression flourishing and consumer demand for products which enable them to express themselves rocketing.
This is exciting, and the sector has nothing to fear from it. It is an opportunity, not a threat. We have all heard the doom and gloom predictions about the number of jobs digitalisation is going to destroy, but we don’t hear nearly enough about the nature and number it will create. History tells us that when there is an Industrial Revolution, more jobs are created than are destroyed – and those jobs tend to be of higher value and higher skills levels. If we can get the skills mix right within the advanced manufacturing and engineering sector and, crucially, if we can build a new mind-set within our sector where leaders and managers see the exciting possibilities of digitalisation and the breaking down of traditional role demarcation, we can be world leading here in the UK.
Robotics, big data, artificial intelligence, machine learning, analytics, additive manufacturing – all of these technologies are here today and I am sure that in ten years’ time we will be able to add to this list new technologies which we cannot yet even conceive of. It’s a hugely exciting time to be involved in the advanced manufacturing and engineering sector. We have a truly inspiring message to give to young people and to others who might have the aptitude and the inclination to join us. So let’s change how we talk about our sector, so that we can change how others think about us.