A leading West Midland industrialist last night hit back at critics who write off the automotive sector as old and irrelevant.

Harald Kruger, director of BMW's £400 million engine plant at Hams Hall, near Birmingham, said the German group did not share this view.

Speaking at the Midlands Engineering Dinner he said engineering, manufacturing and the automotive industry in the region, and in the UK, is alive and well.

"It not only has a great heritage, but also the potential to have an equally exciting future," Mr Kruger said.

"Manufacturing and the car industry in the Midlands have certainly been under considerable pressure in recent years.

"Some people have been all too prepared to see the automotive industry, along with ship-building and coal-mining, as an 'old industry' that is neither economically important nor technologically interesting, and therefore not particularly promising as a future career for young people.

"This is certainly not true, and speaking here on behalf of the BMW Group, I can assure you that this is not the opinion of my company."

Careers in automotive engineering offered intellectual and professional challenges plus an opportunity to work internationally.

The industry often led the introduction of innovative new materials, technologies, product concepts and management techniques.

"These are just a few of the reasons why I, and my colleagues at BMW, feel so passionate about what we do, whether we are based here in the UK, or working at one of our many production facilities in Germany, Austria, the US or elsewhere in the world."

But with growing competition from emerging countries such as China and India, the UK, along with other traditional manufacturing centres, was finding life tougher.

"But if we, the BMW Group, were not confident in the future of the UK as a suitable place to manufacture our products, then we would not be investing such large sums of money in this country," Mr Kruger said.

He highlighted a recent report that showed that BMW had invested £900 million in its UK operations at Hams Hall, the Mini plant at Oxford, the new Rolls-Royce factory at Sussex and its Swindon panels operation.

Hams Hall, which builds all BMW's four-cylinder petrol engines and employs 700 people, is being expanded to take in production of engines for the new version of the Mini.

In total, BMW directly employs nearly 20,000 people in the UK and contributes a total of £2.5 billion to GDP.

"The clear message to the Government and to the Exchequer is that while the service industries may have increased their importance in recent times, the contribution of the engineering and manufacturing sectors to the healthy development of this country's economy and labour market - taking BMW as just one example - is, and will continue to be, immensely important," Mr Kruger said.

"I am convinced that engineering in the UK has the opportunity to have an exciting future.

"This will depend on our ability to foster an environment in which young people aspire to become the sort of engineering heroes of the future."

Mr Kruger, a board member of both the SMMT's Automotive Academy and its Manufacturing Forum, warned that more needed to be done to train and prepare young people for engineering careers.

"This is vital if we wish to compete with the low-cost, well-educated workforces that already exist, or are swiftly being created, in countries such as China and India."

Last night's event at the Birmingham Hilton Metropole Hotel was organised by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers and the Institution of Electrical Engineers.