The Government is finding that a yardstick is a convenient tool to drive people towards making improvements. The R&D scoreboard, for example, has been designed to place peer pressure on rival companies to increase investment in research.
Next week, there will be another yardstick in the drive for competitive improvements. This time, the motivation comes from skills training, with the launch on Monday of a new People Skills Scoreboard.
The move may cause a certain amount of uneasiness in some engineering companies. Last week, the full findings of a report from the Engineering and Marine Training Authority (EMTA) gave a detailed list of shortcomings in training and skills within the engineering sector.
According to EMTA, there are skills gaps of varying severity across the whole of manufacturing. These are blamed on a combination of the engineering profession’s poor image and the attractiveness or otherwise of the training and prospects offered by employers.
The poor image of engineering is a cultural problem which is endemic, according to EMTA. But while efforts such as the proposed £5m per year TV advertising campaign will go some of the way to redressing this, there are more institutionally entrenched barriers which are keeping talented people away from engineering jobs.
The jobs in question are those for which the skills shortages are most acute: the craft and specialist technical skills like CNC machine setting.
The blame, according to EMTA, seems to lie within the financial system in which schools, colleges and companies seeking to run Modern Apprenticeships all operate.
EMTA’s report pulls no punches. Among the main reasons for recruitment difficulties in engineering, it cites the ‘often incomplete, and at worst biased, careers advice to young people’.
It is not just a question of schools buying in to the image of engineering careers as unattractive. Teenagers are often wooed into staying on at school because colleges’ income depends on the numbers of students they have. ‘They simply can’t afford to lose them,’ said John Hyde, chief executive of Walsall Training and Enterprise Council.
Engineering companies have found that colleges are all too keen to keep pupils until they are 18, and to get them onto courses with a low overhead cost. This tends to exclude engineering courses, which are relatively expensive to run.
Paul Rogers, trying to recruit school leavers to work at GKN Westland in Yeovil, Devon, says colleges had been unhelpful: ‘In trying to get people to work for us, we seem to be working against the advice of local colleges, who want to get bums on seats for courses.’
EMTA’s report puts the blame on local financial management of schools and the Incorporation of Colleges, ‘which has led to unhealthy competition for young people who are worth a lot of money to the institution in question’.
Careers advisers also find it easier to advise about continuing education than about the range of work-based occupational options. This often leads to young people staying on when it would be in their best interests to opt for work-based vocational education and training at that stage.
The number of college-based engineering courses is also shrinking, simply because of the relatively high cost of the equipment required.
George Mudie, minister for lifelong learning, admits that inequalities in the costs of the courses can sway the training provision which is eventually delivered. ‘A business studies course could get away with a book, maybe a computer for each student. Put that against the costs involved in running an engineering course and you see the extent of the problem,’ he said.
Engineering companies also find it expensive to educate and train people, and the funding from government is, according to many players, completely inadequate.
The national Modern Apprenticeship scheme attracts government funding, but the nature of engineering training means that it requires high levels of supervision, and long periods of practical and technical study.
EMTA believes there is now an urgent need for a rethink on how this is funded, ‘so that employers in expensive sectors such as engineering do not have to dig deeper into their pockets than those in other sectors such as retail and business administration’.
If this does not happen, then increasingly the training needs of British industry will simply be ignored. Funds will be unlocked for cheap-to-run courses, while teenagers will continue to be lured to classroom-based further education courses simply because there is no engineering course, or because the nearest course is too far away.
The Government is looking to the new Regional Development Agencies, due to be launched next April, to encourage closer co-ordination between the bodies funding training and further education.
John Hyde, Walsall TEC boss, is not optimistic. ‘I wouldn’t hold out a great deal of hope that the situation is going to change dramatically in the short term.’
He believes that while funding for skills training is still flowing through a multitude of organisations and agencies, then the internal conflicts will persist. ‘Until all the funding for training flows through the RDAs, we won’t be getting the best bang for our bucks,’ he said.
But many in industry believe that a wholesale review of apprenticeship training is essential.
‘A national apprenticeship system that is so dependent on public funding could fail to match the skills requirements in this country that are needed if we are to stay competitive,’ said John Berkeley, a former Rover engineer, now a senior research fellow at the University of Warwick. ‘We are asking for a genuine level playing field,’ he added.
Berkeley cited the example of one large and successful company with no fewer than 3,000 apprentices. The apprentices are paid by the company, but all their training is paid for by the state.
‘The name of that company? It’s BMW. The country is Germany. But what have they got that we could not have here in this country?’