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Is a lack of parental understanding fuelling the skills gap?

07 March 2011

Medicine, science and engineering have topped a poll of the careers parents dream their sons and daughters will follow. However, according to new research by organisers of The Big Bang young scientists and engineers fair, two thirds (68%) of UK parents are holding back from encouraging their children to consider these careers because of their own lack of knowledge of these fields. The study of 3,000 UK parents with children aged 4-17 reveals that a third (31%) of parents admit to having no idea about the jobs available in these areas, and one in five (19%) find science and engineering too difficult to comprehend anyway.

The research further highlights a gender divide with a quarter of parents deeming science as a career most suited to boys, with even more (36%) regarding engineering as a male preserve. And - how sad is this - one in ten label scientists and engineers as ‘geeks’, preferring their children to follow the TV-inspired talent route, attracted by the instant fame and bright lights of programmes such as 'X Factor' and 'Britain’s Got Talent'.

Responding to its survey findings, The Big Bang warns that the knowledge gap and subsequent lack of parental encouragement could have an overwhelming impact not just on young people’s aspirations, but eventually on the future state of the nation's economy. Plugging the skills gap is already a challenge, with almost half of UK employers (45%) having difficulty recruiting people with science, technology, engineering and maths skills (one of the findings of the CBI-EDI Education and Skills Survey conducted in May 2010). The Big Bang believes this could hinder growth in critical areas, such as electric vehicle development, renewable energy and pharmaceuticals.

Professor Brian Cox, a spokesperson for, and supporter of The Big Bang, says that with science and engineering ranking so highly on parents ‘most wanted’ careers list, it is clear they have high hopes for their children. "But the research suggests that they need to feel more equipped to help their kids make career decisions," he suggests. "Without this encouragement from parents, we could see the STEM skills gap widen, which poses a risk to our country’s competitive edge."

The Big Bang fair takes place at London's ExCel centre later this week (March 10-12). It’s free to attend, and offers a great opportunity for parents and their children to learn more about what career options are out there. Click here for details.

Doing a good job? Then perhaps you deserve an award
Businesses of all sizes are invited to share their success stories and demonstrate how manufacturing and engineering companies are at the forefront of re-building the UK economy. You can show what you're made of by entering the EEF/Infor Manufacturing Future Awards, launched last week. These regional and national awards recognise outstanding business performance in three key categories: innovation; enterprise and environmental responsibility, as well as celebrating the achievements of apprentices who effectively hold the future of UK manufacturing in their hands.

With manufacturing seemingly leading us all out of the recession, this is good timing on the part of the EEF, whose Manufacturing Future Awards scheme was conceived just three years ago, at a time when the nation was teetering on the edge of an economic abyss. Chief executive Terry Scuolar is convinced that even in the toughest economic conditions, UK manufacturers are prepared to break down barriers, reinvent the rules and reach out for new opportunities. "This year’s awards will underline the dynamic manufacturing industry we can all be proud of,” he says.

The judges are seeking stories of inspiration, passion, ingenuity, and sheer hard work. Judging panel chairman, Cranfield University’s Professor Steve Evans, says the Future Manufacturing Awards showcase the dynamic ideas put in place to overcome hard times and help grow our economy. EEF’s partner and awards sponsor, the business software specialist, Infor concurs. Marketing director Emma Rainey says that Infor’s role in the local and national judging panels last year gave a fantastic insight into the levels of enthusiasm and innovation that is rife in the British economy. “I call it typical British defiance that innovation will not be beaten down when times are tough,” she says.

The Future Manufacturing Awards will be judged in six regions across the UK throughout September, and regional winners will be announced at celebration events sponsored by Santander Corporate Banking, in November. Regional winners in each category will then compete for the national awards at a national ceremony in London in January 2012. The Awards are free to enter and are open to all UK manufacturers from now until July 31. For more information, click here.

Les Hunt

Newsletter reader Dave Bethell comments: I would contend that it is not just parents but also the teachers and career mentors at schools who are insufficiently enlightened … and of course industry itself must have some of the blame laid at its doors.

Even thinking back over three decades to my time at (grammar) school, the Physics Department was renowned for its prowess in producing excellent ’O’ and ‘A’-level results, but from my particular 6th form group I was the only student taking Physics and Mathematics (and Spanish, but that’s another story) who went into an Engineering degree, ‘Pure Physics’ or ‘Pure Mathematics’ (and especially at Oxbridge) being seen as the ultimate prize.

Unfortunately in the UK the stone was cast a long, long time ago, and we will never be able to achieve the status for Engineering (and Science) that exists in (say) Germany or France. Meanwhile the media still bemoans the lack of an ‘upturn’ in the economy, but everybody with whom I talk in UK industry is working flat out, and is in fact quite probably over-loaded, so something else is holding the recovery of UK plc back; I wonder what that might be then ..?

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