Industry engagement must be part of the solution

3 min read

stuart thumbnailStuart Nathan

Features Editor

A 10 point plan from engineering company Laing O'Rourke to close the UK's engineering skills gap displays an encouraging willingness on the company's part to become part of the solution to the problem

It's become one of the clichés of the engineering sector that employers complain about the skills of graduates and school leavers. The Engineer has long held the view that this is disingenuous; employers have to take responsibility for the training of their staff. It was very encouraging, therefore, to see yesterday Laing O'Rourke, Britain's largest privately owned engineering and construction company, publish a 10-point plan for closing the 'skills gap' that so threatens the future of the sector.

Particularly encouraging is that the company is thinking in terms of solutions to the problem rather than merely pointing out the problem exists (the attitude of many other companies in the sector). It acknowledges the sector itself has to play a role in its solution. One of the points caught my eye straight away; Laing O'Rourke calls for the introduction of GCSEs and A-levels in engineering. Regular readers will know that we believe it very strange that many young people's first experience of any formal engineering education is when they enter university or an apprenticeship. There can surely be no other vocation where somebody can be expected to take the decision to enter the profession without having been taught anything about it (some people mention law or medicine, but these are generally at least encountered in history and biology lessons, to a greater extent than engineering is touched on in applied maths).

It had escaped our notice that until relatively recently the qualifications in these subjects have been available. Readers may recall a recent controversy over the scrapping of an art history A-level. Although it wasn't mentioned in many reports in the press, art history was only one subject among several facing the axe. Engineering was another, as was critical thinking. We can only guess at the thought processes in the Department of Education which decided that these subjects were useless. Why on earth would a government not want young people to have some training in critical thinking? Please try not to be too cynical in your response.

Discussing this among The Engineer staff yesterday, we thought that maybe engineering would be a difficult subject to teach in many schools. With long-standing shortages of maths and physics teachers, it must be quite difficult to find people to teach it. Moreover, it's possible that the necessary equipment for practical lessons is expensive and difficult to accommodate. The Laing O'Rourke proposal is for courses in Design, Engineer, and Construct (DEC), a curriculum which is already officially available. However, only 42 of the 3401 state-funded schools in the UK offer this curriculum.

O'Rourke's proposal paper states: “The government has the opportunity to work with the industry to create GCSEs and A-levels in DEC and incentivise schools and colleges to offer them to pupils and students.

“This would boost the appeal of the sector to schools, students, parents, universities and higher education institutions and educate people about the positive reality of a career in modern day construction and engineering.”

We can only agree.

Another encouraging sign is that O'Rourke states that government and industry should work closely together to develop much better careers advice for schools and universities; another thing that The Engineer has been arguing for for some time. Among other good ideas in the 10 point plan is that the Russell Group universities increase the availability of part-time degree apprenticeships; and that career-transitioning apprenticeships be developed. The idea of regionally-focused skills pipelines is also a strong one, which we feel sure that (for example) the automotive industry in the West Midlands and Aerospace in the south-west would enthusiastically support.

it sometimes seems that we spent too many years being told that we were "all in this together" without anyone from government or industry actually putting in any effort to play the role that this phrase implied, preferring instead just to blame people who had enough on their plate trying to get on with their lives in difficult times without having to make effort to fix the structural problems in the country. It's very encouraging that a company of the size of Laing O'Rourke should make proposals promising to play a role in fixing the problems that we have been reporting on for so long. We hope to that other organisations, from private sector to education and industry bodies, follow suit and start working together. There's no doubt that engineering offers rewarding and absorbing careers; what's been missing for so long is the culture that gets talented young people into the position where they can follow them.