The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997

1991Prime Minister (1990-1997)

Mr Major’s Speech to Young Engineers Competition – 11 September 1991

Below is the text of Mr Major’s speech at the Young Engineers for Britain Competition, organised by the Engineering Council. The speech was given on 11th September 1991 at the National Westminster Hall in London.


One of the reasons I am delighted to be here is because of what it actually signifies about the way in which prospects for the future are changing, the opportunities for young people in the future are changing, and the things that we need to do to secure our own prosperity in the future are changing as well.

The days when young people learned a profession and then stayed in that profession from the time they left school to the time they retired without any fresh learning, fresh innovation or changes have long since gone. That may have been the way of life for generations in the past, but it certainly isn’t for generations today and it is going to be less so for generations in the future.

The pace of innovation, of technology, the engineering changes that are being brought about are meaning that we are living in a world that is moving more rapidly than anything we have ever known before. And that places a special premium on the skills of those who can make things happen, those who can apply scientific knowledge, those who can make sure that scientific knowledge uses nature’s resources to benefit mankind. And that in the wider application is what engineering is about and it is because of what engineers have done and the fruits of their work that these days we live healthier lives, longer lives, in many ways more comfortable lives than previous generations.

Maybe politicians occasionally take the credit for it but the reality is that it is the innovation and brilliance of men and women who have been engineers who’ve actually brought about so many of those changes.

We live also in a time when television and radio have widened our knowledge and horizons. When labour saving devices have freed us, especially women, from the previous generations who faced the endless drudge of household chores. That is rapidly changing, opening the way thank goodness to independent careers for far more people today and tomorrow than has ever been the case in the past.

And then of course there is the health-care technology aspects of engineering. The technology that has saved countless lives in this country and throughout the world and gives disabled people a great deal more personal freedom than otherwise they would have. Those are two of the fruits of the activities of the best of our engineers. We live in a time when cars and trains and planes give us mobility undreamed of by our ancestors. All those are products, too, of the skills, the resources, mental resources, of our engineers.

And I believe that there cannot be a shred of doubt that good quality engineers are vital not only to our personal living standards but to our national prosperity. Nearly one tenth of our nation’s wealth is created by engineers.

Perhaps one clear illustration of the extent to which the financial sector in particular recognises this is the direct link between engineers and prosperity illustrated by putting Faraday and Stephenson on modern bank notes. It’s quite right that they should be there; they have played a significant role in creating that modern prosperity.

So we live in a changing world and we change with it or we fall behind other people. There can be no doubt I think in our minds, anybody in this country, what we need to do. We need to stay at the leading end of innovation and technology if we are to achieve for this country what it expects of itself and what we wish to see achieved.

In years gone past, over generations, I feel we have been less good than some of our main competitors at getting enough of the best young people into engineering. And the reason for that is one I feel deeply about myself and have touched upon on many occasions. It is that instinct embedded deep in our culture that previously tended to disdain industry and give more kudos to classical education than to technological education.

Our aim very clearly my intention, is to change that culture. So that the British engineer enjoys the same status as the German engineer. That is what we need to move towards, both for social reasons and, I think, for economic reasons as well if we are to maximise the opportunities for our country in the future. It will take time. It is a cultural change. It can’t just happen because we pass an Act in Parliament, or because we make a speech or two.

It will grow, but I believe it is becoming ever-more embedded in the national instinct that people who have the particular skills of technology and engineering are people who are of critical importance to all our futures. And I hope they will not only enjoy the business, but the social status that necessarily should go with that.

Clearly a part of that is to do with Government and is to do with education. It is for those reasons that we have made many of the changes that one has seen in recent years in the national curriculum. The change that means that every pupil studies maths and science up to the age of 16 to the required level of attainment. And these days far more people are applying to become science and maths teachers and there is no doubt at all in recent years how much we have needed to produce them.

So we are seeking and finding new ways of meeting the demand for technical education. City technology colleges are proving their popularity, at least three applications for every single place that becomes available. And there could I think be no clearer illustration of two things. First the vast reservoir of people who understand the importance of technology education. And secondly the vast number of our young people who have an aptitude and an interest in that form of education and who wish to pursue it. Their judgement is right, it is going to be critical to our future and their success in that will secure their individual futures as well.

And so we sought to meet much of those aspirations by increasing the number of engineering places in higher education. By setting in place for the first time a coherent structure of high level vocational qualifications which will raise their status. That is I think frightfully important. It must be understood by employers and others that vocational qualifications are important and that they should enjoy the same status as academic qualifications in the future and we are determined that they will.

Now the Government of course finds itself in a position where it can do a great deal. But it cannot do it all. We can provide the foundation in Government, but thereafter it is for employers to market engineering. To show the attractions and opportunities of engineering, so young people have a clearer understanding of what engineers do and what a remarkably attractive career it can be for them.

I know from what I have read about this competition and what I hope to see at the end of this brief ceremony is that the young people in this hall have I illustrated there is no shortage of talent in the engineering sector.

What we must now do is maximise that talent, utilise it, for them, for us and for the wider country as well. And it is up to employers to demonstrate that engineering can offer satisfying and rewarding careers. The sponsors of today’s competition have recognised that and they have done something practical about it. And John Fairclough, (Chairman of The Engineering Council), who used to be my Scientific Adviser, and never hesitated to speak his mind on these occasions has frequently reminded me of the importance of all that. So let me say to the sponsors how much I appreciate what they have done in the past, are doing, and will I trust do in the future to continue to sponsor engineering. Their help is very much appreciated and we desperately need it.

Let me also applaud those employers who work with The Engineering Council on the Neighbourhood Engineers scheme, another important scheme that’s doing extremely well. And having engineers working alongside teachers in secondary schools is bound to raise the awareness in those schools of what engineers can offer young pupils, parents and teachers.

Increasingly technology itself is becoming a subject that young people actually study at school and carry forward. And that is another illustration of the changes that we are seeing in our education system. I mentioned a few moments ago that Carol (Carol Vorderman, the TV and radio presenter on maths and science programmes, who announced the Awards), was an engineer and in that she is amongst a minority and particularly a minority of women. But it is increasingly important to get more women to pursue engineering as a career.

And I hope that career advisers in schools will throw away these old handbooks of stereotypes of what boys like to do and what girls like to do. Let them actually lift their eyes a bit more. Look at the opportunities that actually exist and encourage people to develop where their natural talents lie irrespective of whether they happen to be a boy or happen to be a girl. There is a fine career in engineering for girls as well as boys.

And I saw recently a quote from one very high-flying woman engineer. And I think it’s just worth passing it on to you. What she said was this: “The competent woman engineer will have every opportunity to rise in the profession to positions of real responsibility”.
And what she went on to say was equally important, “Engineering now has as much to do with replacement of hip joints, baby life support systems, and pollution control systems, as it has to do with nuclear power and anti-ballistic missiles. There is room for the woman engineer in all those fields”. And I very strongly agree with that sentiment.

Not only do I agree with it, I believe that the WISE scheme (the Women into Science and Engineering scheme), that initiative is beginning to change attitudes for the better. The proportion of women engineering students has nearly doubled since WISE started in 1984. And eight, eight of the regional finalists in today’s competition are young women. What we wish to see in the future is to see that rise and very substantially, and I have no doubt that it will.

So today is an important occasion not just for the innovators who are here amongst whom the prizewinners will be announced very shortly and I have been threatened with the direst results if I leak the results even moments in advance of them being announced. But they are illustrating the changing positions we have in this country.

There can in a competition like this only be one winner at the end of examining all the entries. But what I have read already of what the entries are, illustrates very clearly to me that there is a dazzling array of skill and talent that the young people have brought here today to this particular competition and I offer them the warmest congratulations for everything they have achieved in getting here today.

The word “engineering” comes from the same word meaning “ingenious” or “creative”. That applies to everyone who is here in this final. That ingenuity, that creativeness is what we will build on in the years to come if we are to deliver and build the prosperity that I would like to see us achieve in this country. That is why I am pleased to be here, that is why I am pleased you are here, that is why most of all I am pleased these young people are here for without them it would be a fruitless operation and it is my pleasure now simply to ask Carol to announce the names of the award winners.