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Teaching and training, and why they shouldn't be confused

The vexed issue of engineering skills rears its head again in our current careers feature, with the chief operating officer of skills body Semta bemoaning the lack of industry-experienced engineers in teaching positions at universities. 

This is clearly a problem: with many engineering degrees not including industry placements, people with the insight to give engineers-to-be some idea of how their learning might be applied is surely valuable, and Semta is quite correct to draw attention to it.

But broaching this subject always opens up the wider argument about what skills new engineers should be expected to have, and whose responsibility it is to impart those skills. We always hear stories about new graduates who don’t know how to wire up a plug, or who don’t know one side of a hacksaw blade from the other (here’s a hint, folks — the side with the toothy bits faces downwards). So whose fault is it if new graduates don’t know the basics? And what are ‘the basics’, anyway?

It does seem ironic that people who bemoan the mistaken idea that engineers are people who fix boilers then start complaining that people who’ve been through university courses don’t possess the skills to – yes! – fix a boiler. Of course they don’t. But they probably do know how to specify the components of a boiler and do a mass and energy balance of the boiler’s input and output pipes — if they’re doing a process engineering degree, at least.

Time was, we wouldn’t have these arguments. Delve back into The Engineer’s archives and you’ll soon find yourself in a time when it was taken as read that the engineering companies would take on apprentices and train them up in all the skills they’d need to work in their toolshops, machine sheds and production halls, and if you went to university to study engineering, it was well understood that you’d be learning about the theoretical basis of the discipline — the applied maths, materials science and so on. Everybody knew about the various and overlapping roles of executive and design engineer, mechanic, fitter and artificer.

But sometime in recent decades — probably sometime between the 60s and the 80s, when apprentice schemes began to be closed down ­— these distinctions were lost. And at some point, it appears, employers began to expect universities to teach the full range of skills.

It isn’t clear why this happened. I don’t know what sort of skills used to be taught in school metalwork and woodwork classes before the 1980s when I went to school (although my father, despite not being a DIY enthusiast, is certainly a lot more familiar with tools than I am) but it’s certainly true that these skills aren’t innate; they have to be taught. But should they be taught at school or university? Or should they be part of employee training when you start a job?

Engineering is a complex discipline which requires a broad breadth of knowledge —it’s what enables engineers to take in a multitude of factors to devise a solution to a problem. If employers think that universities aren’t teaching essential skills, then what skills that they are teaching should be deemed inessential and removed from courses? Or are they suggesting that courses should include extra teaching, and should therefore be longer? If that’s the case, who should pay for this extra teaching?

Surely if employers want people with the skills of a mechanic, then that’s who they should employ: and if those people aren’t available, isn’t it the role of the employer to train people how to do their jobs? While, as I said, it’s surely common sense that it’s beneficial to be taught engineering by people who have earned a living as engineers, let’s not confuse that with extending the already onerous workload of engineering students with material which should be taught by, and at the expense of, others.

Readers' comments (18)

  • When I went to University in the '80s, under the Student-hating, anti-industry Tories (other's words, not mine), I had no fees to pay and got a grant (thank you the Labour party for wrecking both). in those dark days of-as the socialist fantasists will tell us- of the tories shutting down all our manufacturing industry (actually increasing output, but that's another story), two thirds of my year were sponsored. We had a year's training before going to uni, summer training, and before a degree could be accredited, an amount of craft training was required.

    Like everything else in education, if we turn the clock back a bit, we can see when things worked- like Grammar Schools. Why not turn the closk back just a few years?

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  • I wholeheartedly agree.

    However, I feel it is even more important that school pupils and university students are taught so that they thoroughly understand their subjects, and can work out answers for themselves. This is very different to being 'trained' to pass exams and to follow set operating procedures in the workplace.

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  • A degree is about learning fundamental theory and academic rigour. These are what allow us to move forward in engineering and develop creative ideas from scratch. Not being able to design manufacturable components is clearly an issue, but something you can learn quickly in the work place of if you are fortunate enough to work on projects like Formula Student you will pick it up very quickly.

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  • Having been one of the fortunate old school engineers I had an apprenticeship and then went to university to get a degree, I can appreciate both sides. I would always advocate both too. Certainly with our year in industry students we always try and push as much practical knowledge upon them as possible. that way they truly learn the correct way to fit a hacksaw blade not just toothy bits pointing downwards but which direction the teeth angles face also.

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  • It is the background knowledge of basic engineering skills that is missing for our youngsters today.

    At secondary school in the late 1950s-early 60s, our metalwork shop had banks of Myford and Colchester lathes, milling machines, shapers, and even a welding bay, as well as fitting benches. From this school background you could follow on to be a skilled fitter, machinist, or professional engineer.

    The next stage for many youngsters was to gain a ‘trade’ apprenticeship at 16 to hone their skills. This led to them being time-served skilled tradesman at age of 21, usually with the help of college day-release or evening school paid for by the employer.

    If you achieved an 'engineering' or 'graduate' apprenticeship at 18, then your employer sponsored you for an HND or degree course at college or university, usually leading to a responsible design or R&D role at the age of 23.

    What is lacking today is the apprentice structure within industry linked to college/university -- thick or thin -- sandwich courses to ensure that the students leaving college have both the theoretical knowledge AND the practical skills to be of use to anyone.

    (Even in the 1960s, if a student with an engineering degree joined industry directly after he/she graduated, the 'shock' of how little they really knew quite often led to them leave industrial life for a career in teaching or a non-practical environment. That's why engineering employers preferred apprentice schemes.)

    Until engineering employers and colleges/universities sit down together and reorganised their training and teaching requirements, the UK will lack the trade and professional engineering skills it so desperately needs.

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  • Agreed!
    The issues of skills and industry are so complex it’s very difficult to pick apart the problem. The problem can however be divided into roughly four parts

    1) Advice from secondary schools is at best sketch and at worst non-existent as 6th forms don’t have engineering departments and 6th form (A levels) are where most learners are advised to progress to after GCSE’s. So after gaining 4 A-levels there is an expectation of progression to a degree. The option of attending a technical college to gain related maths, science and hand skills is completely bypassed. So we end up with highly qualified engineers who can solve complex mathematical problems but can’t use hand tools, so what… they didn’t go to university to become skilled craftsman so does it really matter? The answer is probably, if you can’t appreciate how it’s made, how can you design it in CAD? Advice and Guidance is key and the 6th form stranglehold that schools have must freed up for industry and colleges to become involved and offer impartial advice.

    2) We have a huge number of families in social housing, many of whom are single parent families with no father figure to pass on practical skills and no ability to carry out maintenance and improvement to a building that is not owned. This degrades the assumed innate skills that we think should exist.

    3) The growth of specialisms and breadth of job roles in engineering makes determining an “engineers” skill set almost impossible. Many companies specialise in processes that are unique to their sector and an element of in house training will always be necessary. Industry can’t leave specialist skills to outside bodied to deliver.

    4) Qualifications…. Where to start with this… it’s a struggle to keep up with an constantly moving target. It’s no surprise that industry find it impossible to keep up with the changes made by successive governments and education secretaries determined to stamp their authority on every aspect of education. From NQF to QCF and back again, Technical Bachelorettes, “New” diplomas, National Diplomas, NVQ , VCQ, PEO MRO… The list of goes on, but they are hugely varied. On the upside, sector skills councils tend to do a good job of determining the occupational standards that are required to fulfil the various job roles in the sector. They agree outcomes for qualifications that would test these skills and in reality produce consistent quality across awarding bodies such as EAL, C&G & Edexcel. But how many of the people in industry chose to become part of this skills apportioning process, not many and certainly not enough. In addition to this, universities are free to design their own courses that do not have to agree with a sector skills council, but let’s face it, universities soon get a reputation for which produce talented graduates and which act as a sausage machine. Perhaps more promotion of the Engineering Council degree accreditation status is required, or better still, next to each course on offer in the shiny UCAS brochure , a number of learners who actually gain employment in related industry after completing the degree would help to focus people’s minds when parting with £9000/year.

    Why not grow your own, allow young local people to have the opportunity of an apprenticeship at your company. Give them the skills that allow them to fit the widget to the thingy. Work with a local college to impart knowledge and skills, be part of the process. Perhaps in a year or two they will really shine and you will benefit from developing him or her and sponsoring them on an HNC, HND or even degree. Perhaps you will end up with a really good design or quality engineer who understands how the widget works.

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  • Ouch:

    "Time was, we wouldn’t have these arguments. Delve back into The Engineer’s archives and you’ll soon find yourself in a time when it was taken as read that the engineering companies would take on apprentices and train them up in all the skills they’d need to work in their toolshops, machine sheds and production halls, and if you went to university to study engineering, it was well understood that you’d be learning about the theoretical basis of the discipline — the applied maths, materials science and so on. Everybody knew about the various and overlapping roles of executive and design engineer, mechanic, fitter and artificer."

    Why "Ouch"? Because many of the best Engineers, by a significant margin, came from graduate apprenticeship schemes. A superb example was the De Havilland scheme that produced a significant number of industry leaders. This took entrants at all levels, from post elementary school through to graduates with the opportunity to step between different levels according to ability. An early school leaver could therefore wind up as a fully qualified professional engineer within the scheme structure. In getting there they recieved full workshop and professional training to a high level.

    Contrast with now: I have experienced supposed toolroom fitters who can wave a file at a bit of metal but have no idea that there should be some finesse involved in doing so properly and accurately.

    I have also experienced graduate engineers who are very average problem solvers and utterly useless at the practical level as well. The biggest crime is the tendency to assume that workshop skills are more easily learnt than analytical skills. This is only true at the most basic level. When properly acquired, each skill set deserves the respect of of the other, only the very best seem to posess and understand both and these people are also incredibly hard to find.

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  • My apprenticeship started at the age of around 6, I remember my father soldering two wires to a bulb. He then gave me a battery and showed me how to connect it. Fascinated I left him to whatever intricate tasks he was engaged with from repairing valve radios to the engine of his car. He used to cast his own white metal bearings and turn them in a lathe, finishing off with a scrapper and engineers blue.
    My 'leaving him' was his primary intent because it was said, that I was his very shadow and used to constantly ask him the 'What and why's of whatever he was doing. I must have been a real pain but from there it only grew my love for technology. I progressed to Airfix Plastic aeroplanes to balsa wood planes powered by rubber bands, indispersed with electronics where I made single transistor radios from my fathers designs.
    My father died when I was quite young but he engendered a love for all things technical within me. After a poor education in Wales and failing my 11-Plus I escaped boring school with little qualification into an apprenticeship with the CEGB, and chose a branch of engineering known as Industrial Instrumentation where all aspects of technology are mixed into one exciting subject of automation that touches on chem. analysis, all types of measurement through to digital processing and data acquisition. From there I grew to respect and use mathematics as I use tools and I now have Patents attached to my name and a thoroughly interesting, varied life working Internationally. But there's one thing I have noticed Its a pity that there is no-one in the UK today that can have the scope- the broadness of mind to provide the solutions needed off-the-fly as it were. Problems such as what BP required for their Deep Water Horizon (Macondo Well) problem. Most Engineers today punch keyboards and have little in the way of practical experience. People with my sort of background as a technician are ignored and considered with low regard, but I had a solution for BP that eclipsed all of their initial failed attempts to Cap the well. One that is still valid today if we are to safely exploit the arctic water for its mineral reserves. I wonder if anyone will take notice and contact me despite my humble background and before another $43 billion dollars or more are fruitlessly wasted?

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  • R. Gardner has 'hit the nail on the head' fairly and squarely. (Like me, he was probably taught to use a hammer correctly too!)
    There is no substitute for 'depth of knowledge' when it comes to real-life problem solving. You cannot adequately design anything, if you don't understand the processing involved in its construction. This doesn't mean being good at doing the construction yourself (although that wouldn't hurt).

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  • I believe when I left school in 1970, 500,000 apprentices were taken on by industry and only 5% of people obtained degrees. Obviously a significant proportion of the apprentices went on to senior positions, but without a degree, but plently of practical knowledge. Compare that to today, when I believe around 31% of the workforce have degrees, but little practical experience. A large part of the problem (said many times on this website) is the media image of Engineering and apprenticship. ie its not for the acadamic, (therefore its for the not very bright). Having gained a Masters degree since leaving school, I cannot see the difference between having to use my brain to solve a practical fault on a plant, or to solve a differential equation on a computer. They are both difficult. I believe the fault lies with ourselves (Engineers) because if we have not organised ourselves to educate people as to the job of Engineering, then no one else is going to do it for us.

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