Time for a national strategy for success06 August 2014

How many more times must we witness government officials wringing their hands over the skills shortage? It's hardly a new phenomenon. The dearth of talent has been holding back UK engineering for years.

Yet minister after minister still laments the problem and, as in a Damascene moment, announces policies and programmes, backed by anodyne reports and paltry funding. It's just the same old, same old.

Among the latest to see the light of day is the Wright report, commissioned by the Labour party and written by Jaguar Land Rover director Mike Wright. It's another angle, admittedly. Wright needs no convincing of the value of manufacturing – and ergo skills – to building a rebalanced economy.

That said, he recommends a stronger focus specifically on advanced manufacturing. Wright makes the surely obvious argument that, although clearly successful to date, this sector is nowhere near adequately provisioned to secure a badly needed, sustainable wealth-generating recovery.

For him, and for many, the big fear is the age-old enemy of success – complacency. Peppering his report with that essential ingredient, fear, he warns that what we do now will "make the difference between success and marginalisation".

Failure to invest financially, but also (and more importantly) in terms of training and educating technicians and engineers, would mean "missing a once in a generation opportunity".

But make no mistake, the paucity of STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) talent is not only a limiting factor for advanced manufacturing. It remains the single biggest challenge facing UK industry as a whole.

Wright suggests we need to at least double the number of engineering apprentices qualifying at advanced level – from 23,500 to 50,000 per year by the end of the next parliament. Others suggest a significantly higher multiple.

Whatever the figure, Wright seeks answers from economies around the world that have transformed their manufacturing capabilities. And he finds that their successes have mostly been the result of successive governments placing the sector "at the forefront" of national strategy.

Will his voice be heard? Business secretary Vince Cable certainly gets it. At a recent event – June's National Summit on Apprentices – he called for a new model of high-level technical education. His wish: to combine academic with applied knowledge, and to encourage training to degree level, to foster "elite apprenticeships".

To that end, Cable advocates a new generation of national colleges – and suggests this approach might end the stereotype that "apprenticeships are for those who don't get to university".

A laudable plan? Certainly. Delivering what business needs? Very possibly. Falls rather short of a national strategy for success, though, doesn't it?

Brian Tinham BSc CEng MInstMC FSOE FIPlantE FIRTE, Editor

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