Radical cures urged for skills crisis

A lifelong learning culture and top-to-tail overhaul of education are prescribed in two industry reports industry’s needs

If the engineering industry has a direct influence over any factor that affects its competitiveness, the skill levels of its workforce must be near the top of the list. But two reports published last week paint a daunting picture for those responsible for creating the right skills base for the future.

Both point to a mismatch within the education system and between education and employment.

The core of the Engineering Employers Federation’s argument is that the industry will look very different by 2010. In its report, A New Millennium of Learning for Engineering, it argues that preparing for this changing skills base involves a very different training and education strategy, which must start now.

`A lifelong learning culture is necessary, that means investing in and developing our people now,’ says Ann Bailey, head of EEF education and training affairs.

The strategy document argues that the engineering sector will be leaner and fitter by 2010, with the increased efficiency leading to job cuts. It reckons the industry will employ about 400,000 fewer people than the 1.8 million today.

The most important fact for the education and training policymakers is that the profile will change significantly. The EEF predicts a much higher proportion of professional engineers and technologists – with more than half the people joining the industry having received higher education. This leads it to argue that radical shifts in the provision and standards of engineering education are needed, with an emphasis on lifelong learning.

Bailey maintains that employers have a key role in retraining. `We have to clean up our image and retrain people rather than make them redundant,’ she says.

The second report, from the Royal Academy of Engineering, also puts a strong case for a radical overhaul of how engineers and technicians are educated. Recommendations echo the EEF’s argument for a partnership between Government, universities, schools, engineering institutions and industry, to push up skill levels.

Dr John Forrest, chair of the academy’s working party, argues that the biggest problem is a mismatch between different needs – schools do not provide what the universities need and many universities do not provide what industry needs.

`We are very critical of the average standards of teaching of maths and science in schools and it is causing serious problems for universities. The universities are doing remedial teaching and not getting down to what they do best,’ he says.

While it will be a long slog to turn much of the education wish list into action, changes at the top end are certain this year. Significant shifts in how professional engineers are educated and trained are on the cards and will be influenced by two sets of proposals due out this summer – first the report of the National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education led by Sir Ron Dearing in June, and second the Engineering Council’s Sartor96 proposals for the professional qualifications of engineers.

When the academy began its work on higher education last year, it saw the move as completion of a series of work on engineering education. But last week’s report, Engineering Higher Education, has entered an increasingly fraught debate about the best ways to improve the standards of our professional engineers.

Many of the recommendations echo the thrust of Sartor96, although Forrest says they were put together independently. It wants a consistent move to four-year courses for CEng registration and to three-year courses for IEng registration. And it calls for universities to decide whether they will offer courses to suit one of the registration routes or both. Forrest expects the CEng route to suit fewer people.

The emphasis, too, is on encouraging universities to look more critically at the content of courses. While the best universities offer four-year courses `as good as the best in the world’, the problem is with many of the newer universities which used to offer good training at HND level. `We are saying to them: don’t try to follow universities that have been in the game for a long while producing a product very well suited to the CEng route,’ says Forrest.

He argues that higher education has to fill the vacuum for incorporated engineers. `These are people who design within current practice. They are vital in engineering teams in a support role,’ he says.

A key issue in ensuring quality at all levels is funding. Engineering courses are not cheap to run, need dearer equipment and more specialised staff than many courses and are often the first to be cut.

The EEF wants the principle of long-term wealth creation to be at the core of policy making. It wants Government to give a clear commitment to manufacturing and reinforce this through appropriate policies and funding for education and training.

In its response to Dearing, the Institution of Mechanical Engineers added its weight to the lobby arguing that engineering must be treated as a special area of strategic importance to the nation. It pointed to already significant resource problems within higher education.

The Royal Academy wants the Government to focus resources on the most able students and on the needs of the employment market.

`It is a nice concept to say we will pay people to study whatever they want and not be concerned about a job, but it is for the past. The Government has to concentrate funding in areas which will provide people we need for the future,’ says Forrest.

{{The Royal Academy of Engineering’s

Action for higher education

* Government maintains funding levels and and focuses cash* Universities move to four-year CEng courses and tailor courses for CEng or IEng registration* Schools raise standards to meet universities’ needs* Institutions develop unified accreditation process* Research councils support high technology in education* Industry increases project work and work placements}}