A nation of shopkeepers and why we need to change the way we educate engineers.

Written by: James Dunne
Published on: 24 Apr 2017

    Napoleon’s famous jibe about Britain being a nation of shopkeepers is actually a myth.  Adam Smith did make some reference to this “fact”, stating in The Wealth of Nations that Britain is "a nation that is governed by shopkeepers", but, as we all know, shopkeepers are having a hard time just now, assailed on all sides by the forces of the internet. 

    Technology is imposing itself on our nation of shopkeepers.  Yet not only are shopkeepers suffering, we don’t have enough engineers and techies to secure our future. The pace of change is relentless: just over ten years ago the iPhone, Uber, Instagram and Spotify didn’t exist.  Who knows what their equivalents will be ten years hence?  And who knows if the UK will have the engineers and technicians capable of coming up with the next generation of gadgets, gizmos and businesses that we need if we are to make a success of the post-Brexit years?

    Britain needs millions more engineers if we’re to be a truly successful economy in the future. OK, I exaggerate, but only a bit.  The actual shortfall is expected to be about one million in 2022.  That’s only five years away and given the time it takes to train people there is no chance of the shortfall being made up.  The current system is simply not producing enough.

    I’ve written about this before and there is no lack of other articles lamenting the state of technological education in the country.  However, there is a chance that something might be done.  The Higher Education Bill could still pass through parliament before Westminster is dissolved for the election.  I am aware that there are some aspects of the Bill that many education traditionalists don’t like. Indeed, there are some aspects of the Bill that I don’t agree with either, but the one area where I personally believe it has got it right is in offering the opportunity for the creation of non-traditional universities, such as the one being developed by entrepreneur James Dyson.  The idea of integrating traditional, rigorous academic courses with real-life, hands-on experience is not a new one, but in the hands of someone like Dyson it could be a real game-changer. A glance at the Dyson website shows many young people who will, I hope, become the new Dysons of the future. In my ideal world, there will still be lots of room for the traditional courses, the liberal arts degrees and the people who study things that are of esoteric interest but no less valuable despite that.  Yet if we are to be able to fund them, we need a successful economy and currently we are not producing enough engineers and computing techies. We can carry on wringing our hands, or we can do something.

    The irony of all this is that at the time when Napoleon was (not) making his alleged remark about Brits and shopkeepers, this country was embarking on a process of industrialisation based on some of the most radical and important inventions and innovations in economic history. Napoleon’s political career may have come to an end at Waterloo, but if the UK doesn’t want to avoid the same fate then it is essential that, irrespective of what happens to the current Bill, we change the ways in which we educate engineers and promote STEM subjects during the course of the next parliament.

    James Dunne, exec-appointments.com