Who is the most famous engineer in Britain?
We are the nation that invented the Industrial Revolution, the country of people like James Watt, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Richard Arkwright and Frank Whittle, the inventor of the modern jet engine.
There is a deep pool to choose from. However, the most famous engineer is Kevin Webster, the mechanic in Coronation Street.
Now there may be very good reasons, given recent events away from the cobbled streets of Weatherfield that Kevin Webster may be prominent in people’s minds, but there is a serious point about the way in which we in this country value and perceive engineering as a profession.
I don’t think we do as much as we should. It is often looked on as a dirty, low-skill, low paid job, often – in Kevin Webster’s case, literally – carried on in the backstreet.
That is far from what the image of engineering should be.
I’ve said on many occasions that engineering is not only part of Hartlepool’s past but is an essential part of the town’s economic future.
The town hopefully will create wealth and provide jobs in fields such as high value manufacturing, a diverse range of energy sectors, such as oil and gas, renewables, particularly offshore wind and nuclear.
The town is a vital part of the supply chain for process industries in Teesside and hopefully will become part of the supply chain for the new railway manufacturers being built by Hitatchi in Newton Aycliffe. All of these require engineering skills.
The whole country needs to up its game when it comes to engineering skills.
There was a debate in Parliament this week about this matter, and I responded for the Opposition in my role as Shadow Minister for Industry.
Engineering UK has estimated that this country needs 87,000 engineers every year for the next ten years just to keep up with existing demand.
However, Britain is only producing 51,000 engineers. We need about 69,000 engineering apprenticeships every year, but the figures for last year showed only about 23,000 engineering apprenticeships, and that figure fell from the previous year.
We are fortunate in Hartlepool to have a great college of further education that is advancing engineering as a career.
We have good secondary schools also committed to engineering – I was particularly pleased to invite the Shadow Minister for Schools to St Hild’s a couple of weeks ago to show the great work that that school does for engineering.
But arguably young people need to be inspired earlier than that – it is right that primary schools get involved to show children what can be achieved in science and engineering. Far too often, young people restrict a potential career in engineering by stopping vital subjects like science or maths when they consider subject options at 14 and 16, so good career advice is vital too.
Teachers often don’t know about the great opportunities that can arise in engineering.
That is why I think more time should be provided in the school timetable to allow for industrial placements to give teachers the insight into modern manufacturing and engineering, and to allow them to go back into the classroom and talk about the opportunities.
And more women need to become engineers.
We are the worst country in the developed world for encouraging women into the profession.
Only one in ten engineers across the UK are women, and the ratio is even worse in the North-East.
Latvia beats us hands down for encouraging women, with 30 per cent of their engineers being female.
This is not about political correctness; it’s about having the widest pool of British people to draw the next generation of engineers from.
If you effectively cut off half the available population at the very start, you’re not going to provide all the talent.
I think there is huge scope for engineering for Hartlepool and Britain in the next century.
To achieve this, however, needs long-term action from government and industry to work together to make Britain an engineering nation.