Informed decisions

Stephen Harris


My experience of careers advice was abysmal. When I told my adviser I was considering maths and English A-levels because I thought they would be useful subjects, she demanded: ‘Why would you want to do them?’ She then recommended a nearby college over my existing school, not because it was better academically, but because she worked there. I ignored her advice.

As someone who went through the careers service less than 10 years ago, I wasn’t surprised to hear speakers at the Royal Academy yesterday call for a dramatic improvement in advice. Presenting teenagers with better information about the possibilities of a career in engineering seems like a vital way to address the growing skills gap in the sector.

Despite Conservative promises before the election, it’s hard to see this happening anytime soon thanks to upcoming public-sector cutbacks. But even if it did, on it’s own it’s unlikely to fully tackle one of the root problems: the perception of engineering among young people.

I know of just a handful of people from my fairly typical comprehensive school year group who went into engineering. For those who struggled with written academic subjects, the sector wasn’t seen as a chance for more vocational achievement. And for most of those set on university, it didn’t receive as much respect as pure science or arts subjects.

This isn’t just a problem among young people – it covers all the people who influence them. Steve Holliday, group director of the National Grid, made a poignant comment yesterday when he quoted anecdotal research about parents who hope their kids can do something ’better’ than engineering.

Relying on an impartial government service to explain the options to teenagers isn’t going to cut it. They’ve got to be convinced of the exciting possibilities – and the earning potential – of an engineering career.

Some people are already attempting to do this. Although BAE’s ’launch’ event yesterday didn’t reveal anything new, it did highlight the company’s £50m annual spend on education and skills. More companies need to go into secondary schools, primary schools even, to work with teachers and careers services to get the message across.

Numerous graduate fairs are held at universities and other locations across the country. But careers fairs for 16 year olds are much less common and much smaller. And you can’t convince someone to study STEM skills after they’ve already started their degree.

Environmental issues are high up the agenda for many young people. So showing them how they can contribute to saving the planet through engineering could be the way to lure them in. It doesn’t just have to be about ‘space and dinosaurs’, as David Willetts is fond of saying.

Of course, expecting every small engineering firm to be making as long-term an investment as talking to 10 year olds is unrealistic, especially in difficult economic times. But with the Conservative’s preference for the private and voluntary sectors to do the work (and put up the cash), crossing our fingers and hoping for better careers advice just won’t be enough.