Engineering Skills (Perkins Review) Westminster Hall

Peter Luff (Mid Worcestershire) (Con): Professor John Perkins’s review of engineering skills was published on 4 November to rightly favourable reviews, and I am delighted to secure this debate because it gives us an opportunity to do four things. It enables us, first, to demonstrate parliamentary support for the review’s important message; secondly, to explore some of the review’s central recommendations; thirdly, to give the Government an opportunity to demonstrate their commitment to the message of the review and to the specific recommendations addressed to the Government; and fourthly, to emphasise that the challenges engineering faces in recruitment and the need to inspire a new generation of young people to enter science, technology, engineering and maths careers are not engineering challenges but marketing ones.

This is not a criticism, but so far the Government’s response to the Perkins review has been limited to an unscripted speech by the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills on the morning of the review’s publication, a press release containing some welcome announcements on aspects of the review and a brief parliamentary answer. I hope the Minister welcomes this opportunity to say a little more, because the issue is urgent.

When the review was published, Stephen Tetlow, chief executive of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, said:

“If we do not meet the shortfall in skills we won’t just slip down the scale of world competitiveness, we will fall off the cliff… In a time of high unemployment, especially in the 18-25 age group, it is simply wrong to rely solely on importing the necessary talent or, more seriously, to allow industry to relocate overseas.”

I hope the Minister welcomes this opportunity to make clear the Government’s strong support for the review’s conclusions and to send a powerful message to the wider engineering community that it has a crucial role to play in making Professor Perkins’s recommendations work. Indeed, of the review’s 22 recommendations, only four are directed exclusively at the Government—the other 18 either require the Government to act in partnership with others or are directed entirely at other organisations. In total, 14 of Professor Perkins’s recommendations require Government action, but seven require employers to act, six are directed at the engineering institutions, three are directed at the broadly defined engineering community and nine are directed at various others, ranging from the Daphne Jackson Trust to the Tomorrow’s Engineers programme.

Before I go any further, I refer hon. Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, which shows that I am a non-executive director of two small high-tech firms and that I have received hospitality from a major technology organisation, QinetiQ. That does not explain why I am here today, however.

As I told the House when introducing a ten-minute rule Bill on STEM careers in February, one of my two heroes is that most brilliant of engineers, Isambard Kingdom Brunel. As someone who now wishes he had

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been an engineer, recent experience has convinced me that the shortage of engineering and technological skills is one of the greatest avoidable threats to our nation’s prosperity and security.

As Engineering UK said in its most recent assessment of the situation,

“the UK will need approximately 87,000 people per year over the next ten years to meet demand—and these people will need at least level 4 skills… Although supply has grown over the past year, we still have only 51,000 engineers coming on stream per year. In fact, the number of level 3 engineering-related apprenticeships has actually dropped from 27,000 to 23,500—falling well short of an annual demand of approximately 69,000.”

I detect a bit of a sea change. Suddenly, engineering and manufacturing are being discussed much more generally and much more positively. The skills shortage facing employers is becoming more generally understood, and the particular scandal of low participation of women in engineering is much more widely acknowledged, as the Perkins review shows.

Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley) (Lab/Co-op): Perhaps one of the hon. Gentleman’s engineering heroines ought to be Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s sister, whose engineering prowess is by no means as well known.

Peter Luff: Or the daughter of Lord Byron, Ada Lovelace, who has a day named after her, and rightly so. I entirely agree that we need more heroes and heroines to inspire the younger generation.

The challenge is urgent. Engineering UK’s recent assessment also states:

“It is concerning that these challenges seem most intense in sectors that should be key drivers of the economic recovery… Responses from firms in the engineering, high-tech/IT and science areas show the highest proportion of both current and future problems in recruiting STEM-skilled employees, with more than one in four reporting current challenges in recruiting technicians (29%) and STEM graduates (26%).”

But still, engineering faces a crisis of misunderstanding. The excitement and challenge of modern engineering is still not properly understood outside engineering. The word “engineering” itself is a problem—“applied science” might be a better description of what engineering means—but we are stuck with the word and we must make it work. Engineering needs to be as highly regarded in this country as it is in countries as diverse as Germany, Jordan and India.

Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): It is not the word but the interpretation of the word that is the problem. A doctor of engineering is an honourable profession in Germany. We must get away from the class-based assumption that engineers have dirty fingernails. Engineering is a high-skilled profession, and we must reflect that in this debate.

Peter Luff: The hon. Gentleman explains the purpose of my remark better than I did, and I am grateful for his intervention.

Engineers cannot tell us what they do, at least not consistently. Ask an engineer what engineering is, and they will often give compelling answers that are brilliantly insightful, but engineers are all different. I think it was the Prime Minister who recently described engineers as

“the poets of the practical world.”

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He is right, and it is that sense of wonder at what engineering can achieve that will help us to achieve our objective of getting more young people into engineering.

I like the description on the bottom of a Women’s Engineering Society poster:

“Engineering is all around us. It’s in the phone in your hand and the shoes on you feet. It’s in sub-sea pipelines and supersonic planes, towering skyscrapers and nanotechnologies. It’s even in the perfectly-baked cupcake (ovens don’t heat themselves). And its engineers who make all this possible—just try imagining a world without them.”

We must make engineering more diverse, not for the sake of political correctness but because members of ethnic minorities and women who are not engineers but could be are missing out on one of life’s great opportunities. Engineering skills shortages would be considerably less acute if we could make engineering more diverse.

I am grateful to the Women’s Engineering Society for drawing my attention to an article in this month’s Top Gear magazine containing 40 images of a Formula 1 team. All the people are white men except the press officer and the six hospitality staff, who are in short skirts, of course. Intriguingly, the head of electronics looks rather like Doc Brown from “Back to the Future.” Perhaps Top Gear wants to take us back to the future of a world in which engineering is dominated entirely by men. Even Jeremy Clarkson might be a little embarrassed by the stereotypes portrayed in the article. The girls at Silverstone university technical college, whom the article purports to be about, are very cross that they are being so badly misrepresented by the magazine. I think Top Gear will be correcting the record, but the article is an example of the kind of problems we face.

Chi Onwurah (Newcastle upon Tyne Central) (Lab): I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. I apologise for being late and because I cannot stay for this important debate due to other engagements. I congratulate him on bringing forward this critical debate. Does he agree that that Top Gear illustration shows not only how engineering is often portrayed in the media, but also the challenge for young girls seeking to go into engineering—as I did, as a chartered engineer? It is a negative portrayal of what can actually be a most inspiring, engaging and fulfilling career.

Peter Luff: I absolutely agree. Having come from an engineering background, the hon. Lady says that with much more effect than I can—politics’ gain is engineering’s loss. I am most grateful for her helpful and entirely correct remarks.

In a ten-minute rule Bill in February, I tried to be simple and focused. I wanted to increase demand from young people and to make them more enthusiastic about pursuing STEM subjects—science, technology, engineering and maths—and careers, whether as apprentices or graduates; to inspire them about the possibilities in engineering, science and technology; to show them by practical example and experience while at school that engineering and technology are exciting and important careers; and then to sustain that interest throughout their time at school.

Some things have changed for the better since February. A new design and technology curriculum provides the opportunity for schools to work with businesses to deepen understanding of the realities of engineering,

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which was my first objective. I want to pay real tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), the Minister with responsibility for schools, for working with all groups involved to transform the Government’s original proposals. Sadly, I see fewer signs than I would like that the Department for Education really understands its role in helping young people to prepare for the world of work. Employers still sense reluctance at the Department for Education to regard schools, in the memorable phrase of my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Caroline Dinenage), who hoped to be here but is sadly indisposed, as part of the supply chain for industry.

I suspended my campaign on the policy suggestions in my Bill and said that I would wait for the Perkins review. It was due in July and sadly delayed to November, but it proved well worth waiting for. As I waited, I concentrated on two issues. The first was the need to do much, much more to inspire young people about the opportunities in engineering, and second was the need to counter the appalling gender stereotyping already discussed. I was therefore delighted to see those two issues considered so thoughtfully in John Perkins’s review, but the response of the engineering community now needs to be clear and convincing and needs above all to take on the challenge of marketing engineering to young people, starting at primary school age.

I should step back a moment and offer categorical congratulations to Professor Perkins. Indeed, the Royal Academy of Engineering has encouraged me to offer a bouquet to Professor Perkins and the wider Department for Business, Innovation and Skills team

“for conducting an exemplification of open policy making. John actively sought out the views of the engineering profession and created the conditions where institutions large and small could get their voices heard. It was brilliant work.”

It also offers a bouquet to the Department for Education, by the way, which, despite my earlier reservations, I do endorse,

“for their reforms to Computing, D&T and vocational education and their willingness to take detailed advice from the engineering profession. The engagement on both sides has been excellent.”

Steve Holliday, chief executive officer of National Grid described the Perkins review to me as

“one of the best reports I have seen in quite some time”.

I agree with all that, but I want to examine one or two details with a critical eye. The royal academy offers the correct cautionary note:

“None of this is easy—particularly the things around diversity—and so on-going collaboration between Government and the engineering profession is key. We’ve had that during the periods of review and reform [good] and now the challenge is to find a mechanism to keep that going in the long term steady-state.”

We need an implementation plan from the Government and from the engineering community.

Against that background, I offer eight observations on areas of the report. The first is a particular bête noire of mine: the lack of attention to defence. The report is strangely silent on the wider security and national resilience issues caused by a shortage of British engineering talent. Defence and security face the greatest threats, as they often cannot use non-British labour on national security grounds. It is true that the bigger companies, such as BAE Systems and Rolls-Royce, have

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no problem recruiting as they are so well-known. They are now over-recruiting to their apprenticeship programmes to feed apprentices into their supply chains, which is welcome and good of them. Smaller companies, however, face huge challenges in finding the right skills. Organisations such as GCHQ are also challenged and need all the home-grown cyber-expertise they can find. I am delighted to be a member of the skills group of the defence growth partnership, and I hope to be able to play my part and to address some of the issues.

My second concern, at which I have already hinted, is that the age group recommended by Perkins is too old. We need to go younger. The National Foundation for Educational Research looked at features of the activities and interventions in schools that were most successful at improving young people’s engagement in STEM. It found that of the five most beneficial activities they identified, the first was to engage pupils at an early age and at key transition points. Indeed, the Perkins review actually says:

“If we are going to secure the flow of talent into engineering, we need to start at the very beginning…Starting to inspire people at 16 years old is too late; choices are made, and options are closed off well before then. So we need purposeful and effective early intervention to enthuse tomorrow’s engineers.”

It is no accident that the “inspiring women” campaign, organised by Inspiring the Future and recently launched by Miriam Gonzalez, aims to start talking to girls at the age of 8, not 11 as Perkins recommends. A recent report from King’s College London on young people’s science and career aspirations said:

“Efforts to broaden students’ aspirations, particularly in relation to STEM, need to begin at primary school. The current focus of most activities and interventions—at secondary school—is likely to be too little too late.”

Steve Holliday told me of his company:

“National Grid’s current strategy is to ‘get in early’ by presenting engineering as a vibrant and viable career choice to a mixed culture and cross gender audience from the age of 8 years upwards.”

If hon. Members want to see a good video for encouraging people to get into STEM careers, I recommend the film produced by Nigel Whitehead of BAE Systems. I have the YouTube address here, but if hon. Members google “engineering careers and BAE Systems”, they will find it. I will happily share the link with anyone afterwards. Perkins’s fifth recommendation to reach out

“particularly to girls aged 11 to 14”

should be rethought. Eight is a much better age to begin.

My third concern is about female participation; the report contains insufficient detail on what we can do to address that problem.The Women’s Business Council’s report, “Maximising Women’s Contribution to Future Economic Growth”, makes the point that while women need work, work also needs women. Ford of Britain said to me:

“Above all there is a need for stronger and more systematic collaboration between educators, industry, BIS and the Department for Education to improve both the reputation and the uptake of STEM subjects and engineering amongst girls.”

I agree with that and worry that, despite the damning evidence produced by Perkins, his recommendations fall well short of a credible path to do something about it. I am working with Science Grrl, a creative group of young professional women working in STEM, to produce specific recommendations to address the issue. We aim

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to produce a report in March. The Select Committee on Science and Technology, which is chaired by the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller), is holding its own inquiry and will hopefully produce its report in the not-to-distant future. The Women’s Engineering Society has some pretty clear and compelling advice to employers and schools, which I commend. We certainly need a clearer plan of action than that offered in Perkins.

The report fails to address the failure to engage local enterprise partnerships, whose potential contribution could and should have been addressed. As the Minister of State at BIS said in a recent written answer:

“At local level, Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) have the lead role in setting strategies for skills within their overall Strategic Economic Plans”—[Official Report, 8 October 2013; Vol. 568, c. 268W.]

Mr Robin Walker (Worcester) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on the excellent points he is making, and on the enormous impact he has already had on turning round the design and technology curriculum. Does he welcome the work going on in the Worcestershire local enterprise partnership to get local business, such as Worcester Bosch and Mazak, working with local schools to promote engineering at both primary and secondary level?

Peter Luff: I welcome the intervention from my hon. Friend, who is my own Member of Parliament. He is absolutely right that the Worcester LEP is doing all the right things, but I doubt whether that is necessarily the case in every LEP area. The Government need to do more to ensure that best practice is shared, even if they do not go down my preferred route of LEPs having a statutory responsibility to share it.

There is also the question of careers advice. Engineering fits into a bigger picture of careers advice in schools. Some interesting research from the Education and Employers Taskforce on NEETs—those not in education, employment or training—was recently drawn to my attention. It is actually two years old, but I only found out about it last week. It was published in February 2012 and asked young adults aged 19 to 24 about their current employment status, and to reflect on their experiences of the world of work while they were at school. The findings were striking. Of the young people who could recall no contact with employers while at school, 26.1% went on to become NEETs. That reduced significantly to 4.3% for those who had taken part in four or more activities involving employers such as career insights, mentoring, work tasters, work experience and so on. As Steve Holliday of National Grid puts it:

“Beyond the Perkins report, the final point I would make is that for the engineering sector to land its messages well, there needs to be a solid foundation of general careers advice/awareness in schools…This will require a joined up strategy between DfE and BIS, with schools and business then having their part to play in making this a reality. I fear that without it, interventions will be too fragmented to make a real impact.”

That would be very serious.

On a slightly more positive note, the report’s recommendations 12 and 13 on vocational education are valuable. The Royal Academy of Engineering offers this perspective:

“In all of John’s work, probably the bit with the greatest potential for long term impact relates to apprenticeships. All critiques of ‘modern apprenticeships’”—

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those under this Government and the previous one—

“show that not all have matched the generally accepted benchmark of the advanced engineering apprenticeship. And government’s response to the Richards’ review promises to make even the engineering apprenticeship better. But the potential significance of those reforms is not obvious to most readers of the Perkins review. With cross-party consensus on apprenticeship, this is the time for a drive to quality outcomes and not just growth in apprenticeship starts”—

as welcome as those are.

“Britain could close the gap on the German dual system if she put her mind to it”.

That is an important point for the Minister. I know he is working hard for this and I congratulate him on and thank him for all his work, but it is encouraging to see the Perkins review so welcomed by the engineering community in that respect. I would labour the point, but I want to make progress and leave time for others to speak.

Moving on to my final two related points, for something to happen, someone has to own the issue, and what is needed is a proper marketing campaign devised by experts, not the engineering of ever more elegant solutions by engineers. I am afraid that the Perkins team clearly did not speak to any marketing experts as they prepared their report. The recommendations under the heading “Inspiration” are helpful but, to be blunt, inadequate. Recommendations 3, 4 and 5 are well intentioned, but not informed by proper understanding of communications. They are recommendations by engineers to engineers. Recommendation 3, on core messages, is okay, and the fourth one, on support for the Tomorrow’s Engineers programme, is correct but limited. Recommendation 5, however, desperately needs to be strengthened.

Rightly directed at the Government and the engineering community, recommendation 5 is for a:

“High profile campaign reaching out to young people, particularly girls aged 11-14 years, with inspirational messages about engineering and diverse role models, to inspire them to become ‘Tomorrow’s Engineers’. The engineering community should take this forward as an annual event.”

For me, this recommendation is groping towards a definition of the central task, but it does not address the right age group and is too limited in its understanding of what is involved. Furthermore, remember that reference to an “annual event”. I repeat my profound concern that starting at 11 is simply too old. Girls in particular are being told at primary school that they do not do science, engineering and technology. We must address that problem. Rightly, the report states that

“we need purposeful and effective early intervention to enthuse tomorrow’s engineers”,

and that there are

“widespread misconceptions and lack of visibility that deter young people”.

The logic of those compelling points, however, has been pursued rigorously. A full, year-round marketing campaign is needed to address not only young people—primarily eight to 14-year-olds—but their parents and teachers; all the other valuable initiatives can sit under that campaign, from which they will all benefit. There are literally thousands of such initiatives. The better known include Big Bang, Tomorrow’s Engineers, STEMNET, Primary Engineer, the 5% Club and Bloodhound SSC, as well as the programmes of individual companies, voluntary bodies, public sector organisations,

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trade associations and professional institutions. Much work has been done by Engineering UK to bring all those initiatives together under the Tomorrow’s Engineers banner, but we need to do much more to explain the overall message of engineering.

I am indebted to George Edwards—he is sitting not a million miles away from us in the Public Gallery—an 18-year-old A-level engineering student from Kent who told me just how bad things are. He had some suggestions to make:

“As a student who has been on the receiving end of almost all of the engineering propaganda aimed at schools, 1 genuinely couldn’t describe what I am supposed to think about a career in engineering. Other than the need for more engineers, there are no clear or pragmatic messages being put across and as the problem becomes of a higher agenda for the media, the response is just to shout louder about the need for engineers.

Outreach must have substance and peer-led inspirational marketing, targeted at appropriate age groups”.

He is absolutely right.

Professor Perkins correctly speaks of the need to inspire, which requires not engineering skills but marketing and communications professionalism. He says in his report’s introduction that he has

“spoken to…industrialists, professional bodies, and educators.”

Although he rightly concludes that inspiration is essential, he appears not to have spoken to people with the appropriate marketing skills to inspire eight to 14-year-olds. This leads him to a limited understanding of what is needed to address the problems he identifies.

The UK marketing sector, similar to engineering, is world class and noted as such by many leading global brands. It is time for engineers to stop engineering solutions to the skills issue and to turn to professional marketing, just as any other organisation, product or brand would. Perkins rightly says:

“We should ensure that…messages are carefully crafted, based on the best available evidence about how to influence and communicate effectively with young people.”

I underline the point that this means working with marketing experts with proven expertise and success, not engineers. What engineers think is important might have no resonance at all with their audience.

The Government and the engineering community are both good at patting themselves on the back for all that they are doing. For example—I tread on dangerous ground here—Professor Perkins praises the Royal Academy of Engineering’s STEPS at Work initiative because it reaches 1,300 teachers and enables them to spend a day with a local engineering employer. I bow to none in my admiration for the royal academy and the outstanding work of Matthew Harrison on such issues, but with respect to them and to Professor Perkins, that scheme is a well-intentioned failure, not a success. There are more than 400,000 teachers in the state sector alone—can engineering really boast that only a little more than 1,000 of them have been persuaded to spend just one day finding out more about local jobs for their students?

The report tells us that the majority of boys and girls have had no encouragement from anyone at all—parents, teachers or friends—even to consider engineering as a career.

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Andrew Miller: The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful point. Does he agree with me and my Committee that part of the problem is the failure of the Department for Education to provide the space for continual professional development among our teachers?

Peter Luff: I agree that CPD is clearly an important component of what is needed to achieve the sea change, but it is not the sole answer. There is no one silver bullet; what is needed is a coherent, organised communication and marketing campaign encouraging teachers, parents and the young people they inspire to do the right thing. I agree with the hon. Gentleman, but that is only part of the solution. The exciting and stimulating story of UK engineering needs to be told to the wider public, and it simply is not being told. This is a massive marketing failure, and not an easy one for engineers to resolve. Indeed, it will not be easy even for marketing professionals, but at least they are used to dealing with hard-to-sell products.

As the report underlines, the action taken by engineers to remedy that market failure has been to create “a wealth of initiatives” and therefore a “complex” and “confusing landscape”. The engineering community’s lack of engagement with marketing professionals to develop a targeted marketing programme has inevitably led to this ineffective but well-intentioned, if costly, muddle. In the report, we read that we need a “high profile media campaign”. Intriguingly, the word “media” is dropped in the summary of recommendations, and rightly so. What is needed is not a media campaign but a well-considered marketing programme, which will include as only one part of it an engagement with all types of media that reach eight to 14-year-olds, speaking to them in their language and not the language of engineers. Such a programme must emphatically not rely on only one “annual event”. Many events can be part of such a campaign, including Tomorrow’s Engineers week and the excellent Big Bang fair. A campaign is not an event or even a collection of events; it is a disciplined programme of communications activity that goes on all year.

A recent report drawing on discussions at a meeting jointly hosted by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers and the Institution of Engineering and Technology in February, with key players from some 30 organisations representing industry, academia, sector skills councils and Government, concluded:

“It is therefore crucial that all the sector skills councils, trade associations, third-sector enhancement and enrichment organisations as well as existing engineering professionals, work in unison rather than isolation. Passionate urging and fragmented campaigning at best confuse prospective interest and at worst turn it away. It is only through a co-ordinated system and consistent messaging from all involved that growth through a rebalanced economy can occur.”

I agree with those wise words from the engineering community.

The Royal Academy of Engineering, working with Engineering UK, is well placed to achieve that. I hope they will rise to the opportunity—with, of course, the active encouragement of the Government.

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