If you ask me
Why the UK needs to work hard to stay at the vanguard of the new space race, plus new thinking on the ongoing skills shortage.
The new space race
Given the rising tide of economic disaster stories, you would be forgiven for not noticing a British manufacturing triumph flying overhead.
Last month saw the successful launch of Skynet 5C, a new communications satellite for the Ministry of Defence. One of the most advanced satellites ever built, it is the product of home-grown scientific and engineering excellence and a powerful counterpoint to those who discuss the country's industrial capability merely in the past tense.
Skynet 5C signifies something more profound: the UK's leading position in the new space race.
Worldwide, demand from space for the services is booming, from telecoms to Earth observation. Mobile broadband is becoming an everyday reality and British satellite technology is playing the lead role in monitoring climate change, policing the policies.
NASA's current mission to Mars has generated huge excitement around the world. What will be the reaction in 2013 when ESA's Mars Rover rolls across the Martian surface, autonomously making decisions that will allow it to explore further than we have ever gone before? This project is rapidly taking shape at Astrium's base in Stevenage in the UK, which is also where the most ambitious piece of space navigation ever attempted is being painstaking planned - the BepiColombo mission to Mercury.
Perhaps the most tangible sign of Britain's space success is the fact that Astrium has recently launched the biggest recruitment campaign in the history of the UK space industry.
With 31 major projects to deliver, worth £13bn, we are looking for 600 engineers and scientists, at all levels from graduates to lead engineers and in fields ranging from software to structures, to join our team. Not surprisingly, jobs in computing, CAD, electronics and electrical systems head the list.
What is on offer is not just the chance to start a career with exciting, cutting-edge technology, but also to work in a business sector predicted to be worth £1tr, globally, by 2025.
We want to recruit from within the UK, and yet, I fear that finding enough candidates with sufficient experience will be a struggle and we will be forced to look abroad.
And this leads to a sobering thought. How do we ensure that this momentum is not lost?
Today's success is the result of long-term planning and innovative thinking. Government played a vital role in contributing to programs such as Galileo, Europe's satellite-based navigation enabler and ARTES - a European scheme to boost research and development in advanced satellite telecomm-unications. Although the funds involved were modest, they provided critical support to an industry taking the fight to heavily subsidised international competitors.
That foresight helped produce an industry worth £7bn to our economy, supporting 70,000 jobs.
Other nations, notably China and India, have taken note. They not only have inspiring space projects underway, they are also nurturing young talent to ensure their space, and other high-tech industries, have a future.
I fear the UK is not doing the same. The race has a way to go yet.
Dr Mike Healy is director of science, navigation and earth observation at Astrium Ltd
Support for skills
Hardly a day goes by without there being another new announcement about skills shortages, an issue that the IET has frequently addressed.
This seems to be across all industries, with manufacturing and the oil industry, among others, complaining about ageing workforces and the problems of recruiting the 'right type of people'.
So how, exactly, do you find the people your industry needs?
A new report from industry body the Engineering and Machinery Alliance (EAMA) found that with 87 per cent of mechanical engineering firms struggling to find the people they need, companies are adopting three main strategies to get round the problem. Half the companies increased their 2008 training budgets, a third employ foreign workers and another third offer apprenticeships.
According to the EAMA, half the apprenticeships, run by SMEs as well as big companies, are fully company funded. Half the sector run annual training programmes for their skilled workers. A third do the same each year for all their people.
"Clearly the sector is, despite what one hears, doing quite a bit about the skills shortage, tackling it in a practical way to solve immediate problems," says Martin Walder, EAMA's newly-elected chairman. "We need to ask government to keep this immediate problem in mind as they launch their major initiative to make the whole economy more skills competitive."
With only a third of firms aware of the level of support government is prepared to introduce to raise sector skills levels longer-term, the report concludes that there is an important communications job to be done to make sure that firms are aware of what is on offer and that government is clear about the sector's practical needs.
"To outsiders, the skills and training sector has become characterised by its complexity," explains Walder. "The associated jargon makes communication difficult. In the report we highlight the companies' strongly expressed view that they want simple, direct information about what's available and that trade associations could play a helpful and supportive role, particularly in sectors like ours where SMEs play such an important role."
'Skills and Qualifications: Mechanical Engineering Firms' Perspectives on Skills and Training and Government's Role' can be viewed or downloaded from the publications section of EAMA's website at www.eama.info.
Hopefully, this initiative should make finding the support for training easier, resulting in a reduction in the skills shortage.
However, a larger part of the problem is in schools where science subjects are not being studied. This is then being carried through to universities where media studies are more popular than traditional engineering and science subjects.
The challenge is to make science and technology more attractive and to educate to provide industry with the skills they need rather than to just pass exams.