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UK needs 'better engineering careers advice service'

The UK needs a better careers advice service to tackle the widening engineering skills gap, according to delegates speaking at the Royal Academy of Engineering yesterday.

Young people aged as young as 10 or 11 are making curriculum choices that can restrict their capacity to become engineers, said Chris Humphries of the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES) at the launch of BAE Systems’ latest skills review.

‘We actually give better advice to people buying a new television set in this country than we do to young people seeking to make their first career step,’ added Humphries. ‘The best estimate according to reliable information services is that television buyers are better off by a factor of five to one.’

These thoughts were echoed by BAE Systems’ chairman, Dick Olver, as he launched an effort to bring the different elements of the company’s education strategy under a single banner, entitled ‘Skills 2020’.

‘We need a career adviser in every school who actually understands what the opportunities are on the back side of the STEM [science, technology, engineering or mathematics] skills,’ he said.

‘If the careers adviser doesn’t have the life experience that allows them to explain with interest and passion what’s on the back side of doing this work, then we’re lost.’

Philip Greenish, chief executive officer of the Royal Academy of Engineering, said that there needs to be a better focus on further education to help young people choose which of the 3,300 existing engineering qualifications would be right for them.

Steve Holliday, chief executive at National Grid, added that there was a need to ‘organise and co-ordinate so that every secondary school in this country has a business contact that can go in and talk about engineering and science’.

Around 58 per cent of net new jobs predicted to appear in the economy between 2007 and 2017 will require employees with STEM skills, equal to 29 per cent of total new and replacement jobs, according to UKCES data.

STEM skills are key to 17 out of 23 priority occupational areas deemed to have priority skill needs, and 26 out of 38 professions where non-European migrants are needed to fill skill shortages are STEM related.

The Conservative party promised before the election to provide expert careers advice in every secondary school and set up a new adult careers service. However, local authorities have already begun to make cuts in existing careers advice budgets.

BAE Systems spent £50m last year on skills and education, including partnerships with schools and universities and its backing of the Big Bang science fair.

Although BAE Systems’ review, carried out by Cambridge University’s Institute for Manufacturing, has not led to any new educational programmes, the company is hoping to increase the communication of skills-related issues across its work with government and schools.

Olver called on companies, professional institutions and the government to invest more in the UK’s engineering and manufacturing base.

‘Without action, the UK’s widening skills gap will have become an irreversible gulf… It is essential that companies continue to invest in the skills of their people.’

Click here to read how a shake-up in careers advice could encourage the engineers of the future.

Readers' comments (13)

  • I sometimes leave my old copies of Marine Engineers Review and Diesel & Gas Turbine mags in my doctor's surgery to try and lift the profile of engineering in my own small way. I am quite sure that most people in this country have no idea of the engineering professions required. perhaps if engineers distributed their professional engineering publications to their childrens' schools it might help to make them more aware

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  • I was talking to an A-level Further Maths teacher a few years ago and discussed with her the currculum.

    She told me she was doing imaginary numbers at that time but was so bored and couldn't see what use they'd be to anyone.

    I had to point out that they were absolutely fundamental to electrical engineering.

    I'm sorry but too many teachers have a purely abstract understanding of science and mathematics.

    Initial Teacher Training needs to be widened so as to provide trainees with a window into the application of what they're going to teach.

    I'm sure the lady in question is a good teacher but I'm more sure her ambivalence towards that topic will have infected her pupils and detracted from their learning experience.

    Let's be honest, these things are not rocket science. How hard would it be for the engineering councils, companies and teacher training centres to get together, accept a few overheads and develop some new learning materials and on a local basis provide regular placements for the student to undertake?

    Finally I just want to call into question the actions of the engineering councils. These warnings have been made for years yet these bodies who supposedly represent us seem to have made little to no differnce in shaping the debate or influencing popular culture. It seems a little pathetic when you consider their sizes, the fees they take and the importance of STEM to the economy. I mean, what other tools or leverage do you need?

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  • Seeing as rocket science is a great example of engineering, we'd prefer the expression 'it's not brain surgery'.

  • The UK does have a massive shortage of engineers, not only due to small numbers actually taking degrees, but that as a qualified engineer, you can make a lot more money going into the financial sector, which really values the mathematical skills involved.
    But who can blame them - whilst promoting "engineering", BAE are laying off skilled engineers in the hundreds, as are other companies. Those that are left aren't paid anywhere near as much as other professions they might choose.

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  • AMEN to the point regarding the "engineering shortage". While companies promote this "shortage", engineers in aerospace are terminated at-will when contracts are lost or canceled. Just wait until this fall when thousands lose their jobs in the space business. The only engineering shortage will be in the "employed" category.

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  • If people don't know what Engineering is and how varied and fun it can be, they won't look to do it. The engineering institutions, Engineering UK etc etc should stop talking independently and form a focussed, proactive, driven alliance to get the message across.

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  • I'm sure that more than half the people in this country think that Engineers mend washing machines. Recently on the television news it was said that engineers removed some wrongly placed concrete bollards. We need legal protection for the description of Engineer. Mainland Europe does it and so does North America, so why not UK? This would require legislation, so in the mean time try to educate people about what Engineers really do.

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  • Is it not the problem that batchelor degrees have become too specialised? Would not a return to first degrees with a much broader scope and less detail be preferable? Specialisation should occur after the batchelor stage. There seems to be the belief that a new graduate is 100% effective immediately after graduation; this is rubbish.
    Many developed countries have allowed their engineering and manufacturing capabilities to be emasculated, so how do graduates obtain experience?
    Germany has not; I believe their example should be followed.

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  • Can someone please explain what curriculum choices a ten or eleven year old can make?
    Age 10-11 equates to Key Stage 2 (Age 7 - 11)
    According to the National Curriculum all Key Stage 1 & 2 students must study: art and design, design and technology, English, geography, history, information and communication technology, mathematics, music, physical education and science
    I thought subject choice did not start until 14 years old.
    I guess like me most 'old' people will be surprised to see that primary and junior schools are teaching design and technology and ICT and that secondary students have so many options. What was wrong with the education system that we all went through that they had to change it?
    I see that many secondary schools are now called 'technology' schools', I thought they may be similar to the old 'technical schools' but found that their idea of a 'technology' project was designing handbags! No doubt they are unisex handbags as I doubt his and hers would be allowed now.

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  • This is not a new issue for engineering in UK - but failing to acknowledge the considerable progress made by the STEM programme and particularly the STEM careers work is unfortunate. All of those who work with schools have a role to play - not just the limited number of Career Advisers. Working with teachers, careers advisers and STEM enrichment providers and stakeholders there is now a wide range of support materials to help inform and enthuse pupils - they just need to locate and use them. Follow the link to find out more:

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  • Yeah, we hear this shortage of engineers bull every so often but other than giving students the sound general advice that they should do something vocational/profesional I dont see that careers advice is the problem.
    The real issue is that new graduates cant get an engineering job without at least a years experience, but cannot get the experience without a job.
    When I graduated with a 2.1 in Mech eng from a well respected university I was still unemployed for 9 months before I could get a foot in the door and start my career. I imagine it must be much worse for graduates now.
    Its hardly suprising that many engineers/scientists go into other professions if companies and recruitment agents wont give them the chance.

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