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

Features editor

The difference between a mechanic and a graduate engineer used to be clearly understood. Industry needs to take back the responsibility for teaching basic skills, and not expect others to do it for them.

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.