First degree

The Year in Industry is helping engineers attract and retain bright candidates, Brian Tripp tells David Fowler

Whenever engineering employers meet, they usually complain about graduates. A typical comment is: `They have this theoretical knowledge, but they don’t know how to apply it. They need experience before they’re any use in my business..’

So you might think an organisation that tries to place prospective science and engineering undergraduates with industry for a year before they’ve even started their degree would be on a hiding to nothing.

In fact, The Year in Industry will place 750 such students with about 300 firms this year. The number is increasing every year. And the companies actually pay: The Year in Industry charges £1,500 a student, and the students themselves are paid at least £150 a week.

`A lot of companies are surprised by the contribution students make during their year,’ says Brian Tripp, The Year in Industry’s national director. `It’s not unusual for a six-figure sum to be saved, or for a new product to be developed with a multi-million pound market.’

Tripp started the organisation in 1987 with a pilot scheme for 19 students and start-up funding from the Department of Trade and Industry and the Manpower Services Commission. Since then it has become a self-financing and highly respected organisation with backing from the Engineering Employers’ Federation and the Royal Academy of Engineering.

Last week, it was invited to make a presentation to the Associate Parliamentary Engineering Group at the House of Commons. One of the two former students who spoke was Gillian Pritchard. While on a placement with power generator First Hydro, she developed a condition monitoring and preventive maintenance system for the generators at the giant Dinorwig pumped storage plant in Snowdonia.

Tripp admits it is hard to persuade firms that students can have something to offer. `It’s still a difficult task. Most business managers are, of necessity, focused on short-term issues. It’s not surprising they take some persuasion and prodding to take young people three or four years before they graduate.’

However, he adds: `Most graduate recruiters would admit they are struggling to find sufficient graduates of the right calibre. Hence there’s a role for an organisation like ours, targeting high-calibre candidates and introducing them to businesses which will take an interest in their long-term development.’

And the candidates are of a high calibre. About 70% achieve more than 24 A-level points – the Engineering Council’s requirement for admission to a Master of Engineering course.

Despite this, business managers legitimately question what such students can offer. Tripp responds: `They have the same intellect as they will have when they are 21; they probably have much more enthusiasm and motivation. Their only deficiency is in technical knowledge.’

Each student also receives three weeks’ residential training in business awareness and interpersonal skills, including team working, problem-solving and communication. `Those sorts of skills are as much in demand from employers as a good degree was a few years ago,’ Tripp says.

The scheme gives students an insight into industry and improves their skills. Tripp believes it also gives them more motivation for their degrees. A quarter go on to gain first-class honours degrees, with 45% obtaining upper-seconds.

`By giving them the chance to see industry for themselves, they are able to base their career decisions on their own experience,’ says Tripp. Many return to the same companies in vacations; some are sponsored through university by the firms.

Crucially, 85% take jobs in industry at the end of their course. Concern about engineering graduates being lost to the City was the main reason the scheme was set up, and this remains a worry.

For the companies, Tripp believes the opportunity `for enlightened companies to attract high-calibre young people into their business’ is at least as important as what the students achieve in the year. In the short-term, Tripp says: `We would say to a new company that if you have not saved at the end of the year what you’ve invested, you or we have done something wrong.’ The 15% that do not return, he says, have usually not been stretched.

Before joining The Year in Industry, Tripp was joint managing director of British Thornton, a maker of slide rules and technical drawing instruments. `Our marketplace was education. I began to work with BTEC and the Design Council in trying to ensure school and BTEC curricula were industrially relevant.’

Through working in marketing in technology-based firms, he says he `quickly realised what a pivotal role engineers and designers have in keeping a competitive edge. Unless you have a soundly-based product that fills a market need, no amount of marketing on its own will sustain a business.’

Tripp would like The Year in Industry approach to become embedded across industry. `Our economic success as a nation depends very much on having high-calibre engineers and scientists working in industry. To achieve that we need many more companies prepared to nurture young talent and give it an opportunity.’

Brian Tripp at a glance

Age: 53

Education: Bristol University: combined honours in Economics, German and Politics

First job: Sales trainee, BP Chemicals International, plastics division

Key appointment: Joint managing director, British Thornton, 1982-87

Current job: National director, The Year in Industry

Interests: Collector of antique glasses, restoring a 300-year-old cottage