Simpler route to NVQs

A three-year review of engineering qualifications has brought about a less complex training systems says Adele Kimber

Since their inception in the mid-1980s, National Vocational Qualifications have suffered from an overly complex system, a bureaucratic assessment procedure, and a plethora of overlapping qualifications. Employees and employers often have to struggle with complicated paperwork which takes their eyes off the real training challenge.

But engineering training providers hope to offer employers and employees a simplified system, as from next month.

The 150-plus vocational qualifications covering the engineering industry will be reinvented, simplified and significantly reduced in number.

Most engineering NVQs reach the end of their life in September. Many no longer match industry needs as the job, the technology or practice has changed. And even though there are many overlapping and confusing qualifications, there are still gaps where there are no qualifications available.

The engineering industry has spent three years trying to put this right, reviewing the standards on which its vocational qualifications are based. Work on three streams – maintenance, manufacturing, and joining – has gone on in parallel.

The Engineering Reformation Project has worked to define a range of agreed standards on which vocational engineering qualifications will be based. The standards set out exactly at what employees need to be competent.

Those involved hope the result will be fewer, more flexible qualifications, made up of a core of mandatory units with a choice of options. For example, the Engineering and Marine Training Authority will reduce its 70 qualifications to 17.

Tim Feast, director of the Occupational Standards Council for Engineering, the body charged with overseeing engineering qualifications, says the rationalisation is important to help mobility of the workforce and to help skills be transferred from one industry to another.

‘You would not expect someone working in agricultural machinery manufacture to be able to transfer easily into the nuclear industry. But there must be a system for those skills to be used in the automotive sector,’ he says. ‘The new standards will help skills to be transferred and I hope that will be the attraction for industry.’

At Rolls-Royce Industrial Power, Tom Wilson, training centre manager is hopeful that if the qualifications are simpler to run then they will be easier to promote to managers and their staff. The company is putting the whole workforce progressively through NVQ level 2, with many starting level 3 in various disciplines.

‘The problems we have now are that the NVQs are not user-friendly. Simplification of assessment would help,’ he says.

Despite many of the old problems with NVQs, the engineering industry has enthusiastically supported the qualifications, helped by its tradition of apprenticeships, and has more than 140,000 people with NVQs. Emta is by far the biggest player in the market as both a lead body, responsible for helping to set standards, and as an organisation that offers qualifications. It holds more than 80% of the market for engineering NVQs, with 110,000 qualifications awarded.

In preparation for its new qualifications, Emta has carried out thorough consultation in the past year, with more than 1,000 presentations made to companies, colleges and training providers. More than 40 lead bodies have been involved and once the basic standards were agreed, a major task for the Reformation Project was to group together the standards into qualification units.

‘Engineering crops up everywhere. We needed to make sure that everyone needing engineering standards could buy into them. It was a complicated task and involved lots of negotiation and compromise,’ says Keith Marshall, Emta head of standards development.

The result is 66 units of competence, small groups of which can be put together to form an engineering qualification to suit a wide range of circumstances. The units themselves are typically made up of two elements for which performance criteria and specific and underpinning knowledge have been specified.

For example, an NVQ level 2 in Engineering Production is made up of three mandatory units covering routine engineering activities and a choice of one unit from 16 which cover machining, finishing, welding, and so on. The generic award replaces 12 old-style NVQs at level 2, such as Engineering Machining or Joining Materials by Welding.

The system allows for specific details to be included on qualification certificates. This is important for employees moving from job to job and industry to industry.

‘Our qualification certificates will detail what a candidate did, and how they did it. The rationalisation will only work if there is enough detail included,’ says Sandy Coleman, Emta product manager.

When the original NVQs were developed they recorded what employees could do. Now the emphasis is on knowledge: broad, for matters such as such as health and safety at work or materials handling, and specific, such as characteristics of types of machine tool component for particular activities.

Marshall argues that the standards are future proof – as technology changes and moves on, the assessment criteria are the only things that need change.

Emta’s new core NVQs are in production, maintenance, technical services and foundation engineering and build on and simplify existing awards. But the Reformation Project has thrown up new qualification areas such as design, with qualifications due in the next few months, and software engineering and support services which will take slightly longer, probably coming out in autumn next year.

Rethinking the engineering foundation qualification is key, but is proving to be one of the most difficult.

It has the biggest single take-up and is followed by most Modern Apprentices. The new style qualification is likely to be launched early next year, once some problems are resolved – for example, the basic standards include things such as decision making which new entrants cannot fulfil.

At the same time as the rationalisation of lower level NVQs, OSCEng is attempting to create a coherent framework across industry.

The aim is for a common set of standards to be in place by Christmas, with a single document giving the occupational standards for the whole engineering function at all levels.

‘Whatever you do in engineering there will be an occupational standard for it. It is important to help create transferable skills,’ says Marshall.

A common standard will also help engineering employees’ career progression, with a clear route up and across industry.


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