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It takes a country to raise an engineer

Britain’s bouncing back! Or so the statistics appear to indicate. The UK economy grew by nearly one per cent in the first three months of the year and is nearly back to its 2008 peak. Of course the population has also grown so we’re all still poorer, plus there are fears of a London house-price bubble and the spectre of interest rate rises to worry about.

There are at least signs that manufacturing is finally making a clear recovery, growing by more than the service sector and at the fastest rate since 2010 (although given manufacturing’s steeper fall during the recession we’re some way off the much hoped-for rebalancing).

But with the good economic news comes the inevitable complaint that we don’t have enough engineering graduates and that the ones we are producing don’t have the right skills to fuel industry’s needs.

Research released today by manufacturers’ organization EEF shows 66 per cent of firms plan to recruit engineering graduates in the next three years, but that 80 per cent of them think universities need to prioritise making students employable and 35 per cent have recently turned to EU students, who are often seen has having better industry experience.

There is certainly a case for universities to look again to ensure their engineering courses are giving students the best opportunities, and for businesses to communicate their needs more clearly. Chairing a recent workshop for the Engineering Professors’ Council on the topic of postgraduate engineering, The Engineer was amazed to see how little university representatives understood what engineering firms wanted from masters and PhD-level candidates.

There is also a strong argument for greater encouragement of industrial placements and sandwich years as part of undergraduate courses, and for more firms to offer such experience.

But there’s also a need for employers to check their expectations and understanding of what universities are for. They are not training colleges or vocational schools but places for students to undertake deep study. They shouldn’t neglect the issue of employability but they also can’t be expected to train students in using specific machines and software at the expense of greater understanding of engineering principles.

Engineering firms also have to step up and take responsibility for training and skills – and indeed many are, providing placements, sponsoring students and putting their existing employees through university. But the numbers doing these things are half (or less) the numbers calling for more from higher education.

While all this is going on, the struggle continues to get more young people onto engineering courses in the first place. A new set of recommendations on careers advice in school raises the hope of some improvement in this sphere.

The approach set out by Sir John Holman in a review for the charitable Gatsby Foundation is to give schools more resources and incentives to improve career guidance provision, which is currently patchy at best – less than a quarter of students receive more than one face-to-face advice session by the time they’re 18.

This approach fits with the current trend for giving schools more freedom to set their own agendas but leaves hanging the question of whether schools will take up the challenge – even with greater pressure from Ofsted and the inclusion of student destinations in league tables. And, especially if careers guidance is provided by teachers rather than dedicated advisers, it won’t address the problem of stereotyping and cultural bias against engineering jobs.

Readers' comments (15)

  • When I saw the intelligent title of the article I guessed that this was a Stephen Harris piece.

    I have been on various academic/industrial panels and working groups over the years and feel that, while the university system cannot be expected to produce fully rounded working engineers, it also attract some unfair blame for the quality of its output.

    A common coffee time discussion within these groups was the increasing need to squander the first year in remedial physics and maths training to correct the shortfall in these areas left by the school system. This then reduces the degree to a two-year process so it is hardly surprising that the output looks a lot like the result of two years training.

    Back in the mid to late eighties there was even a serious (political) proposal to increase throughput and reduce costs by limiting engineering degrees to two years. What held this back was the obvious and unflattering comparison with a typical European five year training programme and so, fortunately, it did not happen.

    Your discussion of the need for more of a careers bias in schools is spot on. This is where the big decision is taken regarding future direction and the training in maths/physics/chemistry at this level needs to get back to providing a suitable basis for in-depth university study. Then the output of degree courses will be at a sufficient level to compete with the output of other European training systems. This is, inevitably, a long play so it requires political commitment. I would really like it to happen.

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  • Following on from Jonathan's comment, I am often amazed how there is a perception that the English and Welsh system of 4 years (3 years BEng + 1 MEng) undergraduate education is deemed equivalent to the German system of 7/8 years(5 years BEng +2/3 MEng).

    Of course the German graduate will have more general and specialist engineering knowledge, industrial placements, commercial awareness and maturity. It's not a level playing field. Ultimately, you reap what you sow and the UK invests the lowest percentage of GDP in university education in the OECD.

    I'm not advocating extending the UK undergraduate course to 8 years in the current form (after all who could afford 72k of debt in tuition alone). Alternative funding streams for training and education need to be developed in a public/private partnership.

    Going back to Germany, there is an understanding between private companies and the government that proper investment in young people pays off in the long run. Here our attitude is far too short term.

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  • While the engineering field is not well paid, given the value that a good engineer can add to any company employing them well, it can be rewarding in other ways. That is likely why people become engineers.

    What most companies want is engineering technicians who will work for less and not challenge middle management on issues of performance, safety and value to the buyer. These technicians may actually have more management and practical experience that most engineers bring to the company, at least at first.

    There is a crying need for engineers, as a profession, to listen to both the applicants and the companies and do what is necessary to get all concerned to provide a long-term development of engineering as a true profession.

    This will not allow the reduction of the time it takes to become a good engineer, but will make it rewarding to all concerned. What is really needed here is a system look at engineering, from all aspects. Good and great engineers can really help monetize value to the consumer, and that is what any effective and efficient industry should be doing.

    System-level analysis is long overdue in engineering, and it shows.

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  • Synergy here with the "TBM Forum", Ontario's "Take Back Manufacturing" initiative, particularly the notion of integrated education and training that we are calling "I^2LS" for "Integrated Industrial Learning System". See also

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  • If employers' expectations are that the role of an engineer is to operate 'specific machines and software' there is a much deeper problem than the university system!
    Perhaps it explains the gulf between the British and German manufacturing industries...

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  • Given the rise of litigation against product failures, where is the drive to get Chartered Engineer to truly mean something. Why in Engineering isn't it the licence to sign off and the professional body a group that oversees standards and withdraws the accreditation for any mal practice (as with other professions). Isn't that the hard route to getting proper recognition of Engineering and Engineers and wouldn't it be relatively easy to get lawyers to challenge products that aren't backed by that Engineering 'stamp'. I have been close to issues and remain amazed that this hasn't already been driven by the courts and 'powers that be'. This would also push back on less well governed competitor products (with their associated risks). This would reinforce the development need to meet the challenges of Engineering accreditation.

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  • Stephen, if you had the time, could you expand on the issues with Masters and PhD students.

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  • Regarding Ian Paterson's comment above. The aerospace world has used approval to "sign off" for many years. Interestingly, suitability to become a signatory has absolutely nothing to do with accreditation by an Engineering Institute and everything to do with acceptability to the regulator. This is entirely based on proven track record and not necessarily a result of a career decision taken by a teenager that then resulted in a suitable degree.

    The Institutes really do need to take a long and very hard look in the mirror to ensure that they like what they see as much of the current push in the accreditation field seems to be wrong-headed with respect to the capabilities of the the accredited engineer.

    Respect and status are not a right. Engineers and engineering will get status and universal respect when they stop boring the world to death on the need for staus and universal respect and, instead, forge Engineering into the massive and indispensable force for national good that it can, and should, become.

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  • I have trained engineering students on their year out from our own engineering courses at Sheffield Hallam. The extra year working brings out the best in students and I believe it makes them much better suited for work when they graduate. As a result, several of those I have taken have gone on to spend years employed in our Research Institute.

    Industry often wants rapid impact from new graduates. This is understandable and the TSB will support companies through the KTP programme to accelerate the careers of graduates whilst generating maximum impact at work. It's a great scheme for those with real ambition.

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  • Some remedial action is obvious:

    1/ No BEng should be called a degree, maybe resurrect the ONC title.
    2/ MEng's should be assessed to see whether they meet the criteria to qualify as a BSc (most will fail)
    3/ Given the risible state of A levels, and the need for a remedial first year, four years needs to be the minimum for a degree. Alternatively, there could be a foundation year between so-called A levels and University (as Arts courses have) to recover the lost learning from the demise of real A levels.
    4/ All Universities not providing 12 weeks' craft training (Mech Eng talking) must have their accreditation withdrawn.
    5/ Specialist, vocational/ easier "degrees" like Motorsport" should be laughed off the face of the earth as they deserve.
    6/ The fourth year should not be given up entirely to projects, but should include 60% plus real technical lectures

    Alternatively, any qualifications more than 20 years old should be re assessed. That should give me 3 degrees (real A levels), a PhD (my BSc), and my MSc remains off the current scale.

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