Brexit may not be all bad news if we are careful, says IET president

The UK’s decision to leave the EU has created a level of uncertainty about the future for businesses and their employees in the technology sector. In an exclusive interview Naomi Climer, president of the IET, says she sees challenges but also opportunities in a post-Brexit tech sector.

What do you see as the main areas of uncertainty for the technology sector?

Naomi Climer (right): We see four main areas of uncertainty. The decision to leave the EU could exacerbate the UK’s engineering and technology skills shortage – the UK is estimated to need 1.82 million new engineers over the next decade – by making it more difficult for companies to recruit engineers from other EU countries.

Naomi Climer

While the UK could tackle this problem by introducing a fast track visa process for engineers and technologists, it is unclear how this would sit alongside the general assumption that reducing immigration was a major factor in the referendum.

Another area of uncertainty is around the potential damage to engineering and science research and innovation, since both funding and international collaboration could suffer. The UK receives more funding for scientific and engineering research than it contributes to the EU – and it is not clear to what extent the UK might be able to access that funding directly if the UK left the EU.

More importantly, losing a formal EU collaborative environment and access to influencing the direction of EU research could both be a significant loss to the UK.

A decline in the UK’s influence on global engineering standards – which is essential to the health and growth of the engineering sector is also an area for concern. Designing equipment to meet global standards is how companies access world markets.

Taking mobile communications standards as an example (in which the EU, with strong UK input, has led the world), the UK could not create its own standards and expect to have them honoured in any significant market, nor would it be able to influence the European standards. This would mean it would inevitably be late to some new markets, unless it became a prominent member and influence in an international standard making body to improve trade with USA or China.

There is also the issue of trade agreements. Losing automatic access to the EU market and needing to negotiate new independent trade agreements is a huge area of concern for many engineering companies. It is not clear that forming new agreements with the UK would be a priority for other trade groupings and countries, nor that the UK would have notable negotiating leverage.

Although the UK might, over time, become incorporated in other treaties, there will inevitably be a delay while those treaties are agreed and during which trade could be damaged.

Before the EU referendum, you raised your concerns about how leaving the EU could affect how firms recruit skilled staff from within Europe. You also highlighted the importance of EU research funding. In the light of this, what would you like to see the government including in its Brexit negotiations to address the concerns of the sector?

Naomi Climer: The result of the EU referendum will have a material effect on UK engineering which accounts for some 27% of UK GDP and over half of our exports. It is critical to the future of the UK that the government’s plan is informed by a clear understanding of the potential solutions, opportunities and risks from the perspective of UK engineering.

In this context, it will be important to ensure that the UK maintains its position as a centre of world class engineering research, remains embedded in setting globally recognised codes and standards, has access to the skills that industry needs and retains competitiveness in export markets.

It’s for this reason that the IET, the Royal Academy of Engineering and the 37 other organisations representing the engineering profession, have come together in the national interest to offer support to the government in the forthcoming negotiations to secure the best possible outcome for the UK.

We will be working together to provide evidence-based advice to government and ensure that the needs of all sectors that have a dependence on engineering are represented and understood.

A project has been established to consult widely across engineering and beyond, gather evidence, analyse the risks and opportunities and produce advice to underpin a strong negotiating position and a positive result for the UK.
Would it be possible to broaden the UK’s involvement with universities across the world in the areas of research and skills?
Naomi Climer: Research and innovation are global activities and UK universities are involved in projects across the world.   20% of UK engineering academics come from outside of the EU (17% come from other EU countries).   Already, as a result of Brexit, concerns have been raised about potential funding cuts for research. We have seen cases in which international collaborations between elite UK universities and their European partners have come under strain because the UK participants are beginning to be seen as a financial liability.

The IET has strong links with universities around the world, including 50 overseas, so we will be using these relationships to best effect.
However, I think the UK Government will recognise the contributions of such universities to the economy through their excellent research.

I hope that the Brexit result will increase interest amongst UK institutions to commit to international research programmes, now that it could be more difficult to maintain academic relationships across EU borders. But this depends to a great extent on future funding.

As the reality of the UK outside the EU begins to take shape, do you see any new opportunities for technology companies? Especially if the UK can become more outward-looking and build stronger trading links with global markets.

Naomi Climer: I do believe that there will be different opportunities within the sector as a result of Brexit. But, we need two things to ensure that these opportunities are not wasted. Firstly, we need support from the UK Government on the engineering and technology agenda. Secondly, we need to adopt a forward-thinking attitude towards these changes.

The UK is an innovative leader in the sector and a lot of other countries perceive our country as one of the frontrunners in technology. British engineering is recognised worldwide and we should make the most of this opportunity to take a more global approach.

Actually, the UK has a number of world class strengths that we should now look to leverage more globally. These strengths run from R&D to manufacturing, the UK has a proven ability to create innovative end to end solutions plus many internationally recognised strengths in the digital domain including cyber security and e-commerce. The UK will continue to be innovative and develop products that the world wants.

Our work with the wider engineering profession with the Government will ensure that the views of the profession have been heard as Brexit decisions are made.

In terms of thinking to the future, we have to be open to the possibility that the new processes that may be set in place, such as fast-track visas for engineering professionals, could make our country more attractive as a business environment from the perspective of business people and professional engineers in other EU countries and in the rest of the world.

Finally, do you see the role of the IET, which has members across the world, changing in a practical sense as a result of the EU referendum result?

Naomi Climer: The IET has been in existence since 1871 and throughout those 145 years we have developed to ensure we remain relevant to the engineering community, initially around telegraphy, then electricity and electrical engineering. These days, due to the multidisciplinary nature of engineering we’re a broad church and we will continue to adapt to meet the needs of the professional engineering community.

We have members in 150 countries right around the world. The professional registrations such as Chartered Engineer (CEng) or EngTech are not affected by Brexit – registration is recognised across Europe and in many countries worldwide.  Registration is not awarded through the EU and all international recognition will continue as before.

Naomi Climer is president of the IET

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