Shoring up the post-Brexit engineering skills base

David

Skilled EU workers, academics and students will be key to driving the post-Brexit engineering economy and government must act quickly to guarantee their status says David Wright, chair of Coventry University’s National Transport Design Centre.

Like most of us, I didn’t expect Theresa May to announce a snap election in June. Similarly, I was one of the many who didn’t expect the Brexit vote to go the way it did. To misquote Monty Python, “No-one expected this Brexit situation!” But we are where we are. And engineers can either moan about the unexpected outcome, or take a more pragmatic approach to the impending divorce – exploring the emerging competitive landscape to see how it can be turned to our favour.

This is certainly the case where industrial design in concerned. Given the inevitable change in our relationship with Europe, a top transport design institution like the NTDC (which runs postgraduate courses for the automotive, aviation, rail and marine sectors) needs to consider its unique position as a ‘talent gateway’ into the UK’s vibrant engineering sector.

While engineering employers are understandably lobbying the government’s Brexit team for some kind of exemption on skilled workers entering the UK from EU countries, universities are faced with an even more complex challenge.

Unlike manufacturers that rely on highly skilled engineers to maintain productivity, universities inhabit a unique position in the economy as both employers of skilled people and, crucially, generators of creativity and innovation. It’s the latter point that is so important right now.

Without the more creative, innovative minds able to develop new designs for tomorrow’s cars, trains, planes and ships, our global competitive position will be dramatically reduced.

Think about it. Here we stand on the edge of one of the most important trade bloc negotiations in our country’s history. Juxtapose this with the nascent Industrial Strategy about to be published and the need for a viable, intellectual ‘feedstock’ is obvious. This intangible capital is what will drive the UK’s industrial design capability for future decades, creating a vital foundation on which engineering excellence will be delivered.

Without the more creative, innovative minds able to develop new designs for tomorrow’s cars, trains, planes and ships, our global competitive position will be dramatically reduced. That is why we need to ensure our educational institutions continue to attract and retain aspiring design engineers from across the globe.

Far from being uncertain about the future of our engineering design capital, the UK is in a strong position – one we need to protect and grow at all costs. Certainly, initial signs from MPs are encouraging in this regard, given the fact that the education select committee wants urgent steps taken to end uncertainty over the future status of EU academics.

Engineering students’ right to work and stay in the UK should be given unilaterally before the end of this year

This sensible approach also extends to the treatment of overseas students, who I believe should be taken out of migration figures. Indeed, committee chairman Neil Carmichael hits the nail on the head when he says that Brexit risks damaging universities’ international competitiveness.

Clearly, engineering students’ right to work and stay in the UK should be given unilaterally before the end of this year, assuming there is no reciprocal deal with other EU countries.

Given the recent recommendations by MPs on this matter, furrowed brows and worried expressions among both engineering lecturers and students in the UK should become far less widespread as the government position in this area solidifies.

While UK plc’s intellectual design capital is difficult to measure in financial terms, its strategic value cannot be underestimated. As many of our Asian competitors will admit, it’s the UK’s unique ability to design trains, planes, automobiles and ships that set the benchmark for quality and performance in their respective markets.

We must never forget that fact – especially as we negotiate the choppy waters of the Brexit channel.

David Wright heads up Coventry’s National Transport Design Centre (NTDC). Due to open in May 2017, the National Transport Design Centre has been established to help fill a shortfall in creative skills that are essential to transport design.

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