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Teach the children well

Features editor

Attitudes to manufacturing are gradually changing in the UK. It’s something we’re now being told regularly by people in industry. Whether it’s the understanding that the country needs to focus more on making things and less on financial services; the increasing popularity of television programmes about science and technology; or the series of high-profile major engineering projects currently underway in the UK at the moment; there definitely seems to be a feeling that we haven’t seen for quite a long time.

The general public is coming around to the idea that engineering and technology are interesting, valuable things, rather than old-fashioned and dirty, and even politicians seem to be queuing up to say how keen they are to support engineering and innovation in the UK. There are even signs of some joined-up policy thinking in the sector.

And yet we still have a skills gap. It’s not just the UK — we’ve spoken to German, Dutch, French and Scandinavian engineers over the past few months and they’ve mostly told us the same story. There was a lull in engineering recruitment and in the number of students applying for technology courses that lasted several decades, the average age of engineers is going up, and there still aren’t enough new engineers entering the profession to counter the number that are going to be leaving as they reach retirement. Meanwhile, the emerging Asian economies are training engineers as fast as they can.

So what still needs to be done in the UK? Talking to senior engineers at the recent MACH show and in interviews recently, a similar message seems to be coming across. Children have always been keen on the idea of engineering; and over the past decade, parents have come around to the idea that the sector represents a good place for their children to seek employment. The siren call of the City and the world of finance has lost much of its brazen lustre over the last few years. The people that still need to be convinced are the teachers.

It seems that when it comes to advice about careers and how school subjects relate to them, teachers are poorly prepared to guide students into engineering. Frequently we’re told that teachers don’t appreciate what a career in engineering might need; that they don’t understand what engineers do; and they aren’t convinced it’s a worthwhile career choice.

Of course, teachers have enough on their plates with teaching to have to worry overmuch about careers advice. But the answer seems to be fairly obvious: engineering companies have to make more of an attempt to connect with schools. All sorts of possibilities spring to mind, from helping to design curriculums, getting involved with training careers advisors, and sponsoring schools visits. Of course, many companies already get involved in this sort of event, but it needs to become a regular part of every major company and institution’s annual routine, whichever sector they’re involved in and whatever projects they’re currently working on.

Britain has no shortage of interesting, exciting engineering sectors that can attract people’s attention. You can work on racing cars in the most glamorous sport in the world. You can go out of this world, building satellites and space probes. You can build graceful bridges and soaring skyscrapers. You can work around the world. It’s not difficult to make engineering exciting. What’s a bit more challenging is to embed it into the everyday and make sure that tomorrow’s students and educators understand how what they learn day to day relates to the world around them.

It’s the most difficult job in the world, they say. But engineers are used to difficult jobs. Let’s help build people.

Readers' comments (28)

  • There's no image problem with Engineering, just pay them the better salaries than Doctors, Dentist & Lawyers, after all its the Engineer who develops the "products" that these people use. Without Engineers, how are other profession able to operate. We should also return so called "Water Engineers" to "Plumbers". The UK has made huge mistakes for decades dressing the wrong people up! and eroding the importance of Engineering and DESIGN! I also find the Engineering Council and Design Council completely USELESS and have failed in what they should be doing and these org's should definitely be scrapped with immediate effect. They need to be replaced by a new single entity providing extream support from the novice to the professional and more.

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  • When you talk to young people in schools - particularly the bright, ambitious ones - they don't consider engineering because it's not seen as a profession in the way that accountancy or law is. When I protest and tell them I'm a professional, a chartered engineer, they say, yes but the man who came to put our Sky dish up/mend the heating etc. was an engineer. I'm not going to do that!
    Until we tackle the image, we won't make progress. Every engineer that can needs to be a STEM Ambassador - interact with young people and challenge the outdated image of engineering and engineers. We need to have some pride in our chosen profession and protect it accordingly.

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  • Oh this one is so simple !
    The government is obsessed with results “ league table of the so called best schools”
    You will find that engineering and technology as been reduced to a side line.
    While the academic subjects are promoted.
    There are major changes within the school systems that will reduce the time a pupil gets to spend with a real teacher.

    This as been going on for a good ten years now so it is of no surprise to me that kids have no interest in engineering.

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  • Where is your supporting evidence for all the things you're saying about UK engineering in this article? Which politicians are lining up and when? Can you demonstrate that the Public's perception of engineering is changing? What joined up thinking in the policy sector? What evidence is there for teachers having a lack of appreciation for engineering careers? We all support the cause of engineering here but just because you say these things, doesn't make them true. Currently it's just vacuous nonsense.

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  • I agree with most of the article. One thing I would like to add is the lack of status an engineer has in the UK. In Germany, engineers are graduates and enjoy a high professional status on par with scientists and doctors, here in the UK they are mistaken for the chap in his white van fixing your washing machine.

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  • When I arrived to UK, I was rather pleased by fact that kids are going to P1 at age of 4.
    But then when I later asked P3 teacher why she still does not teach 'times tables', she replied: It is forbidden by
    Department of Education, because the level of difficulty can be discouraging to some of the pupils...

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  • I work with a chap who did a degree in mechanical engineering, he's a salesman because it's better pay and has a better image, work that one out for yourself!

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  • Image is a problem... as is lack of information as to a good career path. I did badly in my first year of A-Levels, so then enrolled onto a four year modern apprenticeship with a very large vacuum pump company. I took redundancy as there was no prospects ("we know we have trained you, but you don't have a degree...") and it was all off to Korea. I have since completed on Open University degree in Engineering - and I now work as a Sales Engineer. Not through choice particularly, but because my job title has has never been 'Manufacturing/Project/Design' Engineer. As soon as people see 'Sales' in my CV they assume I have no real engineering experience at all. I am also a married woman of 30 - with no children - so I really do have no hope at all.....

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  • There are several factors contributing to these problems. First we need to address the apathy and the taking for granted of everything engineering based, irrespective of what it is. Second we need children to understand how things are made, developed, and what goes into these processes. Third we need engineering to be salaried accordingly, not the current low salaries as children are taught to chase the money. Engineering is ignored because its low paid.
    Four, children need to be taught that everything around them is engineering based, their school tables and chairs, computers, mobile phones, cars which their parents drive, and everything else.

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  • One of the greatest difficulties in our education system is that it is staffed by people who have never left the rarefied world of academia. They went to school, to university/teacher training college, then back into schools to teach. Apart from the odd holiday job, they have never had a real job in industry, and simply have no understanding of the industrial world.
    I really feel that we should insist that all new teachers must spend time out between university and their teaching years, working in a job NOT associated with teaching. This would create better rounded teachers with a greater understanding of the real 'world of work'.

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