Allan Cook


Allan Cook was appointed a non-executive director of WS Atkins in September 2009, taking up the post of chairman on 1 February 2010. He is a chartered engineer with more than 30 years’ international experience in the automotive, aerospace and defence industries. He is deputy chairman of Marshall of Cambridge (Holdings) Limited and a member of the operating executive board of J.F. Lehman & Company. He is chairman of the Skills & Jobs Retention Group, chairman of the Sector Skills Council for Science, Engineering and Manufacturing Technologies Alliance (SEMTA). He is also lead non-executive member of the Departmental Board for the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills, and was chairman of UKTI’s Advanced Engineering Sector Advisory Board until October 2013. He was awarded a CBE in the Queen’s New Year’s Honours list in 2008. He is a fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering where he is Vice President and serves as a trustee for the Academy. He also chairs the Academy’s employer-focused Diversity Leadership Group, part of the BIS STEM Diversity Programme.

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The critical importance of infrastructure to the UK’s global competitiveness, economy, businesses and society is undisputed. But, what are the consequences industry could face, if we fail to address the skills deficit effectively in the UK? Atkins’ Chairman Allan Cook CBE provides a perspective on potential solutions to Atkins’ report into, “ The skills deficit: consequences and opportunities for UK infrastructure“.

There is no doubt that we have a very real issue on our hands. In many cases we are only just starting to see the negative effects of the skills shortage, and as backed up by the contributors, there are numerous examples across all sectors where it is already restricting our ability to operate efficiently in a global, competitive market. This study offers a glimpse at what the future could hold if we don’t find the solutions, and it’s a future we cannot contemplate.

The Royal Academy of Engineers, Engineering UK and the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, as well as professional institutions such as the ICE, IET and IMechE, are just some of the bodies which are already delivering excellent work. But we still need to do much more and I hope these findings can help provide additional focus, drive and determination to fix the problem.

The most significant challenges will be in the years ahead rather than on the immediate horizon. By then not only will we be dealing with a shortage of young people joining the profession, we will have to replace the current generation of scientists and engineers who will have retired. Therefore our number one priority has to be encouraging, inspiring and motivating young people to choose STEM careers.

If you offered a selection of young people a job profile that offered great career progression opportunities, excitement, job security, above average compensation and an opportunity for your work to make a real difference to people’s lives, many of them would grab it with both hands. So why is it that engineering, which offers all of these – and much more – is such a turn off?

There are many deep seated, but out-dated perceptions about the profession. We need to change these to ensure young people see engineers alongside doctors, solicitors and astronauts when they talk about ‘what I want to be when I grow up’. Part of the solution is to make sure that parents and teachers, who are probably the biggest influencers on children’s career direction, have sufficient information, understanding and knowledge of what engineers do to promote it as a potential career choice.

We also need to make an extra effort to broaden the diversity of people within the profession, in particular we need to attract more women and people from a wider variety of ethnic backgrounds. For example, as the research shows, if we can double the current percentage of women working in the sector we will add an extra 96,000 people to the UK’s science and engineering workforce. That would make a real and tangible difference.

I joined the profession as an apprentice, so I appreciate the value of having the right guidance, support, opportunities and mentoring in the early part of your career. As an industry we must continue to invest time and money in providing these for the next generation. This means offering a range of ways for young people to start a STEM career, not only via the traditional university route, but through apprenticeships and work experience whilst still at school. We are seeing the number of engineering skills academy’s growing, with government and industry match funding initiatives to focus on training young people in areas such as energy and tunnelling, both of which will be required to deliver key projects in the National Infrastructure Plan.

This research shows that the shortage of skills could affect us all in one way or another. Therefore we all – parents, teachers, students, politicians and the current science and engineering communities – have a role to play in finding the solution. We won’t achieve this if we each do our own thing. As engineers we work together in partnerships every day to deliver a common goal. This is the only way we really can reduce the skills deficit and guarantee we can deliver the critical national infrastructure of tomorrow.

A copy of the skills report is available to view/download here.

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