WOMEN and girls are a “treasure trove” of talent for Britain’s engineering sector, according to one of the country’s leading women entrepreneurs.
But Sherry Coutu, the former CEO and angel investor, also warned of “catastrophic consequences” if the UK fails to tackle the skills gap in fast growing sectors linked to science, technology and mathematics.
Ms Coutu was one of the keynote speakers at an event to celebrate International Women’s Day which was organised by the Leeds-based networking organisation, Forward Ladies. During her speech at the event in the Leeds Hilton City, Ms Coutu said that a lack of skilled staff was the biggest threat to the UK’s economic competitiveness.
Ms Coutu serves on the boards of companies, charities and universities.
Speaking afterwards, she told The Yorkshire Post, that in a global economy, people have a choice about where they operate from.
She said organisations such as the CBI were worried about the problems finding skilled staff in parts of the UK.
Ms Coutu said: “Most ambitious businesses that have the most innovative products may choose to not be here, and that over time of a five to 10-year period will be truly catastrophic, and the competitive advantage of our nation will decline very quickly.”
“It’s a big issue, but I don’t really understand it because there are fascinating jobs in STEM (science technology, engineering and mathematics) and the job satisfaction of people who hold those jobs is high.
“One of the most important things is role models,’’ she added. “Sometimes in schools I hear stories about a physics teacher saying, ‘Well if you study physics I don’t know what destination that will lead you to.
“The easiest thing is to say, ‘If you study physics, why don’t we have four people in next week who are now using physics?
“But they’re not shooting asteroids out of a laser beam, they’re using it in everday life in businesses in our local community.”
She said that schools could, for example, invite a party of engineers to speak to the pupils.
She added: “I’d make sure if I were a teacher that at least half of those were women. This is the type of job that you can do and they are brilliant jobs.
“It’s amazing to me that there is something in our culture that somehow manages to dissuade people from (pursuing) the most interesting jobs that there are.”
She said it was a travesty that not enough people were in rewarding jobs in sectors like engineering.
Ms Coutu, who chairs Founders4Schools, which helps people to improve the life chances of students by connecting them to business leaders, stressed that there were real economic benefits if we encourage girls to think about careers in sectors like engineering from an early age.
She added: “If at 14, you introduce them to some people and they think, ‘That’s an interesting job.
“It suddenly becomes OK, and they can see their pathway to that really interesting destination.”
The event also heard the inspiring story of Kavita Oberoi, who was born in Bradford. She described the obstacles she had faced when she started out as an entrepreneur, and encouraged the audience to show tenacity to overcome any hurdles they might face.
Ms Oberoi established her first business, Oberoi Consulting, in 2001, after spotting a gap in the market for clinical audit services In 2012 she also established Oberoi Business Hub, based in Derby’s Pride Park, which is a shared business hub designed to help and encourage start-ups
The Yorkshire Post was the media partner for the event.