July 17, 2011 11:14 pm

Call for more engineers to help boost economy

Britain needs to produce 10,000 more university-qualified engineers a year – 50 per cent more than now – if the government is to achieve its aim of a “rebalanced” economy, according to one of the country’s most senior business executives.

Sir John Parker also told the Financial Times that David Cameron’s aim of reorientating the economy towards productive industry and investment was likely to be held back by the relatively small number of large UK-owned manufacturers whose activities could “add traction” to smaller businesses.

“Having big ‘national champions’ in specific industries is not unimportant,” said Sir John.

“They lend visibility [to manufacturing] and help the activities of other companies through supply contracts and collaborative research.”

Sir John is chairman of the Anglo American mining group and the National Grid power company, as well as being on the boards of three other large international businesses. He took over on July 11 as president of the Royal Academy of Engineering, the main body representing top-flight engineers.

Sir John said increasing the flow of these people from academic institutes would be a vital component of the rebalanced economy that has featured in the rhetoric of the prime minister and other members of the coalition.

“If we are to have an economy which features a greater amount of technocratic horsepower, then the supply of young people who set their sights on becoming engineers needs to be increased.”

He said it was largely up to the engineering profession and business leaders to “devise the phraseology” that would attract more young people into a discipline that was vital to economic growth and provision of infrastructure such as roads, power stations and railways.

The idea of boosting the number of engineers coming out of universities by half should be achievable in five to 10 years, Sir John said.

“If you look at what lies behind the products and services of many companies, from pharmaceuticals to railways, you will find that their creative focus is invariably centred on the art and science of engineering.”

As part of the economy tied to engineering, it was important to lift the fortunes of manufacturing, where Britain’s share of world output has declined from 4 per cent in 2000 to 2.3 per cent last year – making it the ninth largest manufacturing country, according to data from IHS Global Insight, a consultancy.

“I’d like the country to be higher [in the global manufacturing league table] than this,” Sir John said. “But since [Margaret] Thatcher we’ve seen a decline in the UK industrial base while other countries such as Germany have been better able to hang on to their position.”

Sir John has backed calls for the government to support specific companies if their health is regarded as being crucial to the economy, an approach criticised by Mr Cameron as “picking winners”.

“If the government feels it is important for Britain to maintain a strong presence in a specific area of industry, and there are specific businesses in this sector that need support to get them through tough times, then it seems appropriate that this assistance is provided,” he said.

Mr Cameron has ruled out the idea of “dispatching [government] officials to pick winners, fund pet projects and roll out grand top-down initiatives”, even though he has pledged assistance for “growth industries” such as high-tech manufacturing as part of an effort to “rebalance” the economy towards production sectors and investment.

Sir John said he did not particularly like the term “picking winners”, describing it as a “dangerous phrase”.

He added: “Sometimes you hear the thought that the government should refrain from picking winners but should instead decide on the right races that Britain should be participating in.

“This seems to me to miss the point, since, in my experience, if you are going to be in a race then it’s a lot better to be a winner than a loser.”

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