Where are the employment opportunities for those encouraged to enter the science and manufacturing sector? asks ANN MCKECHIN

 

Barely a day goes by without someone calling for a shift in our economy towards a greater emphasis on manufacturing, renewable energy or life sciences.

Young people at school are being told to look to STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects as the best route into work – more are urged to study maths or science subjects at college or university rather than the liberal arts. And in Glasgow, Scotland’s largest city and driver of its economic health, its Economic Commission reported last month that three of the city’s five top priorities should be low carbon industries, engineering, design and manufacturing and life sciences.

There is little argument that Scotland has many advantages in developing into these sectors – a long history in both engineering achievements and scientific innovation, a strong and dynamic tertiary education sector, and a natural geography that provides countless opportunities to develop new energy sources. There is also little dispute that these areas offer potential to significantly increase the number of skilled well paid jobs and to place us in a better position to meet the future challenges of  the increasingly volatile and more competitive international markets. It’s a good vision for the future of Glasgow and for Scotland.

But two meetings I had last week in the city with Department of Work and Pensions staff and a leading firm of engineering consultants reminded me that we need hardnosed pragmatism as much as visionary appeals if we truly want to achieve the “big shift”. Latest analysis of vacancies by the DWP in the West of Scotland show that about a third of Job Seekers Allowance applicants are in the professional/executive sector; but the main areas for new jobs are not in the STEM areas but in call centres and to a lesser extent, retail.

The sad truth is that there are very few jobs in the engineering and manufacturing sectors. The local Jobcentres are under huge pressure to meet demanding targets and accordingly this inevitably means moving more skilled job applicants into low level entry jobs in order to reduce the numbers on the books. It is almost always better to be in some form of work rather than without any but it is probably also true that work in an unskilled area for a significant period is no great help in returning to better paid work. To date, little or no thought has been made at governmental level as to how to keep this growing section of the workforce motivated or re-trained before new and more suitable work is available.

My meeting with the engineering consultants confirmed this impression of a real need to develop STEM skills ready for future jobs but a current dearth of suitable employment. They feared that the consequences of the recession of the early  ’90s would be repeated – engineering graduates coming out of university to find no engineering jobs and diverting into widely different areas such as the police or teaching. Barely any tried to re-enter the profession when  jobs returned and the gap in numbers hit us badly when opportunities arose. This time it could be even worse given the appallingly slow forecast growth rates combined with the continued reticence by banks to lend.

If we want our young people to make the right choices, we need to spend more time in deciding what we are doing now to show them that moving into STEM areas is not a waste of effort. Supporting more businesses to take on apprentices or newly qualified graduates would be a start; getting the Green Investment Bank off the ground with a higher amount of real capital is another good step; and investing in renewing our creaking infrastructure of pipes and cables along with more reclamation of contaminated land would be a down payment that would be well rewarded for us all.

Pragmatic visionaries able to work to a tight time scale required urgently!

Ann McKechin is the Labour MP for Glasgow North and Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland.