Can a well-paid industry at last cast off its dull image? Francis Beckett reports.
For years, round about summer time, every national newspaper education correspondent has dug out and dusted down the article about how young people won't go into engineering. There are usually some updated statistics, but the basic story is always the same: we can't get the engineers who are vital for a manufacturing and high-tech nation; young people prefer to go into the apparently glamorous and well-paid worlds of media studies, public relations, management or journalism.
Now BAE Systems is making yet another attempt to change all that. Its Engineering Our Future programme is designed to promote engineering to young people and offers schools and colleges resources, activities and events aimed at getting students to experience for themselves the excitement of science and technology in action.
BAE Systems was formed by the merger in 1999 of British Aerospace and Marconi, and employs 70,000 people in the UK and 100,000 worldwide. It operates on 60 sites in the UK and recruits 1,500 young people a year, 700 of whom are modern apprentices.
So the company has an interest in ensuring that suitably qualified young people are available to become engineers and modern apprentices, and education liaison manager David Rowley points out that there are more jobs for engineering students than there are for media students.
The Engineering Our Future pack was distributed to all UK schools and colleges in June 1999. There are four strands to the programme: learning science and technology in the Millennium Dome; regional science fairs; curriculum resources for schools and colleges; and putting engineers into the classroom to support the educational material.
BAE Systems has sponsored the Dome's mind zone to which schools and colleges have been offered the chance to take a class on a free visit. As well as visiting the exhibits, they also take part in special BAE Systems activities. To bring the Dome out to the country, 12 regional science fairs are running from April to mid-July, with pupils in the main designing and delivering the content. The teams producing the best display from each region will be invited to a final event at the Dome.
The curriculum materials for Engineering our Future are part of an ongoing programme of teachers' notes, student resources and multimedia materials. More than 500 systems engineers have been trained to support these materials in the classroom. They spend up to five days in each school, and they offer specialised help with project work and advice on engineering careers. These engineers tend to be recent recruits who can relate their own experience to young people.
This is the latest effort in an 30-year struggle to raise the profile of engineering and improve its image. Existing programmes include WISE (Women in Science and Engineering), the Engineering Education Scheme and the BEST programme (Better Engineering Students Today), run by the Royal Academy of Engineering. But the industry still has some way to go before engineering has the same status in the UK as in Germany.
Engineering Council figures show the number of engineering students has doubled in 10 years. This constitutes only six per cent of the undergraduate population. Yet the median starting salary for engineering graduates is above the average at pound;16,000. Eleven years after graduation, both engineering and mathematical (computer science) graduates are in the top 10 highest earning disciplines. And among the FTSE 100 top executives, there are more engineers than accountants.