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Are British engineers an endangered species? It seems so, to go by the acute shortage currently facing technology companies.
This year in the UK, 61,000 engineering vacancies will go unfilled. Each of those missing engineers contributes to a project being delayed – or worse, cancelled. Research programmes are being sidelined, and the pace of new technology will stall. Inevitably, this means that British exporters will fall behind and growth will be slower than it could be. If the UK cannot provide enough engineers then companies will go elsewhere. The government must get to grips with the crisis in engineering.
At Dyson we have ambitious plans for growth. We want to add 3,000 bright engineers to our research and development centre in Wiltshire. But I have no idea where these engineers are going to come from. In the past three years we have tripled the number of engineers in our UK headquarters, but now we have hit a wall. Last year we had 120 engineering positions unfilled. It holds us back, and it holds exports back.
The solution lies at the roots: in education. We should not be afraid to offer financial incentives to encourage the brightest students towards areas of vital national interest. Are the students smart, interested in science and engineering, and thinking of going to university? Then give them grants to cover tuition fees. Let them learn the skills we need to build Britain’s future power stations, high-speed railways and exportable technologies. We will quickly recoup the cost. Engineering graduates earn higher salaries and pay more taxes, too.
Let us use their brains to our advantage”
– James Dyson
Do not stop there. Get these bright young minds to continue studying. Foreign postgraduate students at our universities vastly outnumber their British colleagues. That might change if we paid postgraduate researchers properly for their work.
Meanwhile we must keep hold of the foreign engineering students who study here. David Willetts, science and universities minister, is proud of the number of foreign students at Britain’s universities. We take their money and we give them our knowledge. But then we kick them out, dispatching newly trained engineers to foreign shores. Our experts are training the competition.
Immigration minister Mark Harper will have you believe that this is in the national interest. It is not. We all lose out when we deprive our businesses of the best talent. Instead, we need to start handing out visas to the brightest students at the graduation hall. Students of science and technology subjects at Britain’s top universities should be given plenty of time to find work and allowed to stay indefinitely if they find a job. Canada has the right idea: it welcomes graduates and their families with open arms, gives out three-year visas, and encourages permanent residence. The Scottish National party has said that an independent Scotland would offer post-study work visas to engineers and scientists.
Look at the consequences of the current policy. French engineers have arrived at Hinkley Point to solve our nuclear problem because we do not have enough people in the UK who are competent to do the job. Government advisers estimate that 20 per cent of all engineers in strategically important sectors are now immigrants. Without them, Britain’s infrastructure would crumble, our aerospace industry would begin a sharp descent and businesses up and down the country would cease to grow.
Foreign engineering students are clearly anglophiles and they are clearly bright. So let us use their brains to our advantage. The reason these engineers go home is because we do everything we can to make them unwelcome. They must find work within a few weeks of completing their studies, or we revoke their visas. If they do find work, we permit them only a fixed-term contract. Their employers, too, face high fees and an avalanche of paperwork. These are the world’s most promising engineers. We ought to be encouraging them to stay, not waving them goodbye.
The solution to our engineering shortage is easy to see. Politicians need to find the mettle to implement it. Otherwise, we and others will be forced to leave for countries where engineers are made – and made welcome.
The writer is founder of Dyson, the technology group