Engineering outreach must target late-bloomers as well as school students

secret engineerWhilst inspiring children to consider a career in engineering is critical, it’s only one part of the skills puzzle. And it’s important that an emphasis on earlier engineering education should not close the door on those who discover their “inner engineer” later in life writes our anonymous blogger.

A while ago we watched rather a good programme on the Devil’s Lantern about schools through the ages. It was one of these “plonking a group from today within a historic environment and seeing how they get on” type things and in this case the final programme dealt with the future. It included the use of cutting edge technology to teach, as well as looking at the way the educational system may be structured in the future.

As a part of this, a group of students and teachers visited Silverstone UTC; putting it forward as an example of how in the future those emerging into the workplace may acquire more specialised skills before leaving school.

My initial reaction was that I was glad to see my own profession, one that we regularly think of as under-appreciated and neglected by the public as a whole, not only represented but put forward as the way ahead. However, I could not help but be concerned when I then considered how the establishment of such specialist colleges for school children as a national network, as suggested by the programme, would have affected my own career.

It is my duty to confess to you, dear reader, that I did not shine academically at school. It wasn’t that I went off the rails or spent too much time chasing girls, rather school and I simply did not “click.” I wonder then, if  we’d had specialist engineering academies that fed into higher education, how I would have fared?

My fear is that an earlier specialisation within the education system, although benefiting some, would close the doors to others

I wonder also just how many students, at an age where such a boost to their skills would matter, know what it is that they want to do with their lives – let alone what their true, realistic capability is? I was looked on as being a little strange as a kid in that I always wanted to be a design engineer, well, either that or an astronaut. Most of my peers were hell bent on pop stardom or being paid lots of money for kicking a ball about. As far as I’m aware none of them achieved those goals and most have followed careers they never even considered back in the days when we shared a classroom.

My own route into engineering was a tad unconventional but still essentially followed the established route of a smattering of qualifications from school followed by taking a more focused course within secondary education. No high flying degree course but still a good way to follow my dream. If we’d had the mooted academy system I wonder if I’d even have had a look in? For me it was the different culture of college that unlocked the door to a certain amount of educational success and the first steps along the path towards a fruitful career. Even back then, by the time I knew what I wanted to do and had shown a certain amount of natural aptitude (still a few Summers shy of my 20’s) I was too old for an apprenticeship.

My fear then is that an earlier specialisation within the education system, although benefiting some, would close the doors to others. If this did become the way of the future, would those not lucky enough to have the self-awareness or innate ability to successfully apply for a place at the academies have missed their chance?

The education policies for the future are being formed even as you read this and, as a profession, we should decide what we need from them and try to influence the strategies put forward to our advantage. I believe that engineers are fundamentally born and not made, being as much of a calling as nursing or teaching.

Some release their inner engineer late in life and I wonder if, in the ever more fluid marketplace we occupy, we should be looking to push for more emphasis on re-training in later years or even towards mature apprenticeships? If we are to change anything, surely better to focus on those who arrive at our door late but backed by a lifetime of experience. Keeping options open for the young and creating opportunities for the older convert has to be a better way forward.