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Engineering: where has the love gone?

16 September 2015

A University of Leicester academic joins all-round entertainer and STEM ambassador in Beijing to address the engineering skills gap.

The UK is predicting its own ‘skills gap’ of approximately half a million engineers by 2022, mainly due to retirements, according to Professor Helen Atkinson CBE, FREng, who heads up the University of Leicester’s Department of Engineering.

Professor Atkinson, alongside international superstar, coach on BBC’s The Voice and Black Eyed Peas frontman,, were to be found discussing the challenges caused by a gap in engineering skills during the Global Grand Challenges Summit in Beijing, China, earlier this week (September 15-16).

Engineering graduates leave university as highly skilled and numerate individuals, making them attractive to a number of other professions, including management and accountancy - however, this can leave a real gap in terms of the number of graduates entering the field of engineering.

“We produce 10,500 UK-based engineering graduates, and 5,000 international engineering graduates in the UK annually, which is just a drop in the ocean compared to the skills gap," says Professor Atkinson, who highlighted issues such as the imminent retirement of existing engineering professionals and the perennial image problem of engineering in the UK, which appears to be discouraging students from embracing STEM subjects.

At the Beijing summit, Professor Atkinson addressed an international audience from the UK, the USA and China that brought together the national academies of engineering from those countries. The summit explored a variety of challenges, including the skills gap, and explored the role engineering can play in tackling global issues such as climate change. Professor Atkinson’s talk focused on the role of universities in helping their students to gain wisdom alongside the knowledge that is essential to their chosen professions. 

Professor Atkinson was invited to speak at the summit by the Royal Academy of Engineering, and was accompanied by - a multi-faceted entertainer, creative innovator and seven-time Grammy Award winner - who is a passionate supporter of the education of young people in STEM subjects.

Meanwhile, the University of Warwick has been chosen to receive funding to help the public become more involved in, and informed about, research. The University will be receiving the award from Research Councils UK (RCUK) as part of its Public Engagement with Research Catalyst Seed Fund (CSF), designed to ensure that engaging the public becomes an integral part of the research process. Professor Pam Thomas from Warwick’s Department of Physics will be coordinating the initiative.

“We are delighted to be part of this national project to embed public engagement in research culture," she says. “Engaging the public is vital to the research process and enhances the quality of the research and its societal significance.”

The total amount for the year will be £115,000 made up of RCUK and university matched funding, including a sum drawn from Warwick’s Higher Education Innovation Funding (HEIF) allocation for the coming year. Nine other awards are being made to other universities for public engagement over the next 12 months.

“Public engagement is an integral part of research and improves both its quality and impact," says Professor John Womersley, RCUK’s champion for public engagement with research and chief executive of the Science and Technology Facilities Council. "We know that researchers are more likely to participate in public engagement if they have the support of their institution. This Catalyst Seed Funding will support infrastructure and cultural change within the funded universities and help researchers to engage with schools and the wider community.”

Les Hunt

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