When an employer recruits an engineering graduate it expects to gain a person who can put technical knowledge to productive use. What it often gets is a person lacking practical experience and the confidence which comes from applying skills.
This has traditionally been seen as something employers must allow for, but the problem is now being addressed by the Smallpeice Trust, an independent charitable body which promotes engineering as a career. One of its aims is to encourage a well-rounded education and hands-on experience for engineering students.
Philip Goward, the trust’s chief executive, says: ‘At conferences in the past three years we’ve asked: what is expected of graduates in engineering?” We were told that language [skills] as well as a basic knowledge of engineering would be very marketable.’
As a result, the Engineering Careers Foundation Year (ECFY) was developed to allow students to take a year out between A-levels and university to gain work experience in another European country, together with foreign language training. The students would get more out of their degrees and would be sought after when they graduated.
Smallpeice sounded out manufacturers in the rest of Europe and established that companies were keen to become involved. ‘It was hard going at first,’ a Smallpeice spokesperson says. ‘Companies were concerned about the age of the students they don’t finish studying until they are 25 or 30 in some countries. The students we wanted to send were much younger. Initially we used contacts we had made in European counties, then agencies in Norway and Spain.’
For the 1998/99 academic year the scheme’s third there were 70 applications for 30 places, and the numbers are rising. The trust plans to expand to 40 places in the next few years.
Selection runs alongside the academic year so students can prepare for a gap year. Anyone interested in a place for the 1999 2000 academic year should apply now. To be eligible for the scheme, applicants must have been offered a university place for an engineering-related degree course. Ability to speak a European language at GCSE standard is also important.
For 1997/98, the course involved a team-building week of outward bound activities at Dartmoor Expedition Centre, followed by 12 weeks at the University of Plymouth studying aspects of engineering, computer aided design and management.
Next came four weeks of language training at Chambery in France. This provided tuition in French, Spanish and German to conversational or technical level, including an exam for a European Language Certificate.
The final phase was a three-month work placement with companies in France, Belgium, Germany, the Republic of Ireland, Finland, Norway and Spain.
The scheme is funded by the European Union and the trust. Students are not required to carry out specific tasks, but are monitored throughout their subsequent university career.
The ECFY’s first group of students has just completed its first year at university. The project is in its early stages, but feedback from all sides has been positive. Companies have been pleasantly surprised by the calibre of the students and their contributions. Several on the latest placements, for example, assisted with innovative computer aided design and helped translate technical manuals.
The host companies, meanwhile, are offered free places on one of the trust’s well-regarded management courses. There are also wider benefits, says Angel Font, director general of educational promotion for the Catalan government, who has helped place ECFY students in Barcelona-based companies.
She first met Smallpeice representatives at a symposium three years ago, who helped introduce work experience to Spain on a systematic basis. ‘Taking on foreign students helps to promote a company abroad,’ Font adds. It also shows how cultural barriers can be brought down as part of the consolidation of the single European market.
Course co-ordinator Andy Hudgell believes students do not realise how much they have learned until they relate the experience to their university work. Care is taken to ensure that work does not overlap with university courses, even though some of the engineering/ management training is to first year university degree level.
Some ECFY students have had job offers from the companies with which they were placed. There are plans to add companies in Italy and Austria to the list, and other European countries may follow.