An education in engineering

keith_lewis matchtech

With anticipation building ahead of GCSE and A Level results day, I wanted to consider how education within engineering has changed over the past 160 years. How have routes into engineering changed over this time and what career opportunities have opened up?

Today, there are a many routes for young people to get into engineering. From the age of 16, you can study engineering as a BTEC National Diploma or start an apprenticeship and from September 2017, 14 year olds will also be able to choose to undertake a GCSE in engineering. At a higher level, you can study engineering at AS, A Level or degree level, providing you have the prerequisite grades in maths and the relevant science and/or tech subjects.

In the past, there wasn’t always this much choice.

A little bit of history

The oldest form of engineering education is apprenticeships, which can be traced back to medieval times. Originally apprenticeships were focused on traditional trades such as construction, paper-making and printing but they evolved in sync with industrialisation to include engineering and shipbuilding by the late nineteenth century.

Apprenticeships have gone through many guises over the past 100 years or so and continue to undergo regular reviews today in terms of course structure, benefits and pay. Decades ago, apprentices would often lodge with their employer or ‘master’, receiving free housing and training in exchange for a premium paid by the apprentice’s parents or a charitable institution. As they were effectively employed, some apprentices would also receive a wage for their work. As well as learning a craft, apprentices also received broader teachings on things like morality, domestic skills and literacy.

Following the First World War, the pay rates of serving apprentices were reviewed. In recognition that serving apprentices could not be expected to return to their lower pre-war salary, the Interrupted Apprenticeships Scheme offered a ‘wage allowance’ from the state to supplement their wage. 45,000 apprentices were accepted onto this scheme including 16,000 in engineering, 7,500 in building, 6,000 in printing and 2,000 in shipbuilding. As a comparison, figures from the EngineeringUK 2016 Status of Engineering Report show that there were more than 105,000 people enrolled onto engineering-related subject apprenticeships in 2013/14 across the UK.

The modern education experience

Throughout modern history, changes in education have been driven by Governmental policies and shaped by economic trends. The introduction of the 1944 Education Act, for example, provided more structure to the education system in England and Wales with a tripartite system of grammar schools, secondary technical schools and secondary modern schools.

It wasn’t until a few decades later that a university education became more commonplace. Between 1960 and 1970, the higher education participation rate had reached 8.4% and the number of graduates in the UK more than doubled to 440,000. The number of people going to university has continued to rise with minor fluctuations along the way and now sits at more than two million.

It is likely that this pattern has been mirrored within engineering, with more people choosing to take this more academic route into the industry compared to more vocational routes. However, with the Government’s commitment to providing three million apprenticeship placements by 2020, the take-up rate of engineering-based apprenticeships is likely to increase once more.

But what do employers look for and how does your route into engineering affect your career opportunities?

Depending on your ambitions and the sector you choose to work in, the expectations of employers will be different. Generally, with the increase in the number of people going to university, the expectation for candidates to have a degree has increased and those employers looking to hire graduates continue to show a preference towards candidates with a minimum 2:1 degree.

Of course, for the majority of roles employers will also demand a certain amount of practical working knowledge/experience as a prerequisite and not all degrees will offer this. This is where apprenticeships and sandwich courses can be extremely valuable routes into engineering.

In addition to education and work experience, just like the apprenticeship teachings of old, employers also look for candidates with well-rounded skills, which can be tested in competency-based interviews.

New engineering roles

Over the past century, technological developments have created a need for new skills and the teaching of these skills has slowly filtered into education. The advent of computers, the subsequent development of the Internet and mobile communications brought about a new engineering discipline in software and school children are now learning skills like computer programming as part of the national curriculum. Today, the industry continues to evolve and there is now an increasing convergence between engineering and technology skill sets.

With new roles emerging all the time, there are more opportunities than ever for young people to enter into an engineering career. I wish all of the students collecting their results this summer all the best.

Keith Lewis, Chief Operating Officer of Gattaca and Managing Director of engineering recruitment specialist Matchtech.