Filling the skills gap

3 min read

Stuart Nathan

Features editor

Education, qualifications and skills. It seems these are subjects that will always be relevant; indeed, it seems they will always be controversial.

Our poll for this week, published yesterday, asks how the numbers of young people entering further engineering education can be increased, and less than 24 hours after publication the poll has already gathered almost 270 responses and 26 comments; indicating that for our readers, this remains an important issue. It's also one where opinions clearly differ.

At the time of writing, the leading option on the poll is that industry should play a greater role in schools. However, what that role should be is very much up for debate. Should companies local to schools provide speakers (or tours) for students to give them an idea of what a career in engineering might involve? Or should they play a much more active role nationwide in helping to dictate the content of courses to ensure that when students enter further training (whether that's at university or an apprenticeship) that they have relevant knowledge?

Civil engineer Yewande Akinole presenting the TwoFour productions series Impossible Engineering
Civil engineer Yewande Akinole presenting the ITV Studios series Impossible Engineering Image: TwoFour Group

Some commenters have said that education should be depoliticised; that is, taken out of the hands of politicians altogether and entrusted to those trained in education. And of course, one aspect of current education policy allows this to happen; Academy schools are free to set their own syllabus, although they are still subject to inspection. However, The Engineer finds it hard to believe that engineers, those proud guardians of qualifications who are always so keen to tell us that only those who have proved their expertise should be able to call themselves engineers, would be happy to have unqualified teachers instructing future generations.

Some years ago, we received a press release from the Department of Education that said the government was keen to ensure that take-up of STEM GCSEs and A-levels was improved. This confused us somewhat, because while we were certain what subjects qualified as science and maths, we were less sure what a technology or engineering GCSE might be. So we phoned the DoE press office and asked them. The press officer was a little confused by our question and asked if he could check and call us back. We, of course, said that was fine. Some hours later, he did call us back but he couldn't give us a definite answer. He said that design and technology courses were supposed to cover that. Well, they certainly didn't when I was at school; that was the euphemism applied to woodwork and metalwork which (at my school at least) was very rudimentary; hence my recent adventures in bladesmithing that some readers might remember. (I also attended a box-making course last year, and am now proud to say that I can cut a competent set of dovetail joints, but I certainly wouldn't claim to be adept with woodworking tools. My late grandfather would be ashamed of me).

Please excuse the digression, but it does serve to demonstrate that there is a glaring gap in education. There would certainly seem to be room for some further skills instruction; and perhaps if that were put in the correct context it could form the basis for a subject actually called 'engineering'. It's always seemed to me to be a problem that 18-year-olds can enter an engineering course, which presumably would indicate that they want to work in engineering, but have never encountered the discipline in any formal sense before. While in previous decades, when manufacturing was a far greater employer in the UK, it was much more likely that students would know somebody in the profession and thereby have a good idea of what it involved, that is sadly not the case today in many parts of the UK. Anecdotally, engineering companies in regions without a strong manufacturing base have told us that is particularly difficult to convince parents that engineering represents a good career for their children.

UCL materials science professor Mark Miodownik is a frequent presenter of engineering-based television programmes and an award-winning author
UCL materials science professor Mark Miodownik is a frequent presenter of engineering-based television programmes and an award-winning author

It is said, quite correctly, that engineering has not had a good cultural presence or image in the UK. The media are often blamed for this but it seems to The Engineer that we are in fact in something of a golden age of engineering's representation. There is a clear interest in technology and there are many very high quality science and engineering programmes on television, with working engineers as presenters, presenting a good background on what is done in the UK's factories and in the research associations that support them. Technology coverage in the main newspapers can, it's true, tend towards the sensationalised, but good reporting in the more specialised press (including The Engineer) can help with this, and we are conscious of our responsibilities in this area.

So maybe things are moving in the right direction. These matters always take some time to resolve themselves, and it's possible that we shall see the undoubted curiosity of young people and the effect of what we think is a better profile for engineering bearing fruit over the course of this decade. But it must certainly be true that the engineering industry must take responsibility for helping schools get the message across. It is a literal no-lose situation.