Editor’s comment: Engineering & levelling up...

Author : Mark Gradwell | Editor | EPDT

02 March 2022

Levelling Up White Paper
Levelling Up White Paper

Back at the beginning of February, Levelling Up Secretary, Michael Gove finally unveiled the government’s flagship ‘Levelling Up White Paper’, setting out its plan “to transform the UK by spreading opportunity & prosperity to all parts of it”. In this editorial, we'll explore the role engineering could play in helping ‘level up’ the country...

This editorial leader was originally featured in the March 2022 issue of EPDT magazine [read the digital issue]. And sign up to receive your own copy each month.

Long awaited, this plan to ‘level up’ some regions of the UK (chiefly those outside London and the South East), based on the idea that many people and communities feel they have been ‘left behind’, was a key part of the Conservative Party’s 2019 election manifesto – and has been billed as a central plank of this government’s post-Brexit, post-pandemic ‘Build Back Better’ agenda…

The white paper sets out “12 bold levelling up missions, given status in law, (to) shift government focus and resources to Britain’s forgotten communities throughout the 2020s”. Among these are commitments to dramatically ramp up R&D investment (in regions outside the South East), to improve nationwide public transport networks, high speed broadband and 4G & 5G cellular coverage, to raise education standards and skills training – and ultimately, to ensure that by 2030, pay, employment and productivity have risen across every area of the UK, while closing the gap between the top performing and other areas.

An ambitious set of goals, with Gove admitting: “This will not be an easy task, and it won’t happen overnight.” The 12 missions form the government’s policy objectives for levelling up, with the white paper representing its long term plan to transform the UK, and setting out the first steps it is taking to achieve this. It includes more detail on commitments by the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy (BEIS) to invest at least 55% of its domestic R&D funding outside the South East by 2025, as well as three new Innovation Accelerators, centred on Greater Manchester, the West Midlands and Glasgow City Region. These clusters of innovation will be backed by £100 million of new government funding to “turbo-charge local growth”.

Trade body, EngineeringUK have welcomed “the long-term vision of the levelling up white paper”, particularly “its recognition of the importance of education and skills in ensuring opportunity is spread more equally across the country”. At the same time, they point out that the engineering sector has long struggled with skills shortages – and long argued for government to better understand the STEM skills gaps in the UK. As such, the ‘levelling up’ initiative provides a real opportunity to enact targeted policies to address these challenges.

“The white paper rightly identifies many of the challenges the country faces, and brings together in a more coherent format the policies that already exist to address those, as well as announce some new ones,” EngineeringUK’s response states – before going on to set out the opportunity to “…provide young people with (the) STEM skills they need in order to access the sectors that will create the jobs of tomorrow, wherever they are.”

MG lockdown headshot
MG lockdown headshot

EngineeringUK’s ‘Levelling up engineering skills’ briefing aims to provide an insight into what young people and their parents know about the different vocational routes into engineering. It highlights that a significant majority of young people still don’t know about the apprenticeship options available to them – with even more having no knowledge of the new T level qualifications. It sets out a series of questions for policymakers, focused on ensuring that all young people, regardless of background, gender or ethnicity, know about the career opportunities in the STEM sectors – and the routes to get there.

Beatrice Barleon, EngineeringUK’s Head of Public Affairs & Policy says: “(STEM) careers will not only drive the economic recovery in this country, and across all the regions, but are also vital to achieve our national ambitions around net zero and help tackle climate change.”

In its own response to the Levelling Up White Paper, The Royal Academy of Engineering asserts that engineering innovation is essential to ‘levelling up’ and inclusive economic development. Professor Sir Jim McDonald FREng FRSE, the Academy’s President, said: “Engineering is essential if we are to pivot the UK towards a more sustainable and inclusive economy and level up areas of regional economic disparity. Reinvigorating economic prosperity across different regions of the country depends on both engineered infrastructure, and the crucial engineering skills and innovation that make this, and many other technologies that benefit society, possible.” The Academy welcomed the strong priority given in the white paper to R&D, innovation and skills.

We often talk about engineering heroes here in EPDT – and how they are essential to developing technologies that improve everyday life. From addressing climate change, to improving global healthcare or maximising the benefits of AI for all, we depend on engineering (and STEM) heroes to help ultimately solve the grand challenges facing society. Their importance in helping ‘level up’ the country is surely clear too – as the Academy allude to, it will be engineers that work on the infrastructure needed to improve travel and communications networks, as well as create the other technologies that increased investment in R&D innovation should deliver.

But as they and EngineeringUK both note, improving STEM education and skills training will be crucial to this – as well as to vital aims around net zero and climate change. And part of this still requires awareness and understanding of STEM skills, education and career opportunities to be raised among young people, parents and even educators. In particular, there remains a clear opportunity and need to broaden the diversity of young people exposed to STEM – in terms of background, gender and ethnicity – which will in turn eventually help ‘level up’ the diversity of the engineering workforce.

EPDT's March 2022 issue also contains features on Displays technologies and Communications applications, plus the latest edition of EPDT's twice-yearly Electronics Outsourcing supplement... Read more on what's inside EPDT this month

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