Cyber security is one of six 'hot' new industries the UK will excel at as long as it makes the necessary investment in its education and engineering base, the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) has argued in a new report.
In addition to cyber security, Ones to Watch lists space, new power networks, 3D printing ('additive manufacturing'), food security, and robotics as making up the half dozen industries in which the UK is already considered a world leader.
The inclusion of cyber security among these might surprise some. Security is still seen in some quarters as a short-term function, secondary to others and essentially a drain on the bottom line. The idea that it might be a competitive advantage in a world built on increasingly complex automated systems is only now starting to become apparent.
But as cyber security matures, it is moving into new areas and this will require a generation of engineers able to work across what today are usually discrete engineering boundaries.
Cyber security systems would also be used to protect systems beyond today's Internet, including the Internet of Things and industrial control, the report said.
"As the concept of cyber security widens out to embrace physical systems, this will be reflected in demand for engineering skills. We will need engineers with expertise that combines areas such as materials science and electromagnetism with cyber security," said the University of Warwick's Cyber Security Centre director, Professor Tim Watson.
Training the new generation of security engineers would require unparalleled partnerships between academia, business and government.
"This report shows that these promising and exciting industry areas offer the UK tremendous opportunity for growth and global leadership. But we also hear straight from the horse's mouth that the biggest barrier to that growth is meeting the need for high numbers of engineers and technicians with an increasingly transformational skillset - especially as these industries grow and new jobs are created," commented IET chief executive, Nigel Fine.
"Government and employers in these industries will need to engage with each other - and with all stages of the education system to produce a talent pipeline with appropriate skills and talent. Investment and faster adaption of new technology are also important factors for them to address.
"We need to act now. The last thing we want to happen is that these innovative new industries fail to achieve their potential because they don't have the skills, talent, technology and investment they need to grow."
Unusually, amidst the expected list of technical and economic issues the IET spots another flaw in the UK's skills makeup - the need to attract a more diverse pool of talent. This will mean channelling talent from a wider range of backgrounds but particularly women, he said.
Hitherto, engineering has been dominated by men for no reason other than an economic division of labour and tradition, the culture of the industries that recruited from universities. The IET's message is that the UK can no longer afford this approach. To flourish, to compete, big six industries of the next half century will need to find more trained women recruits - indeed more people from all backgrounds - or run out of the raw talent for expansion.