It takes a country to raise an engineer

Senior reporter

Engineering firms must step up when it comes to training graduates if they expect universities to do the same.

Britain’s bouncing back! Or so the statistics appear to indicate. The UK economy grew by nearly one per cent in the first three months of the year and is nearly back to its 2008 peak. Of course the population has also grown so we’re all still poorer, plus there are fears of a London house-price bubble and the spectre of interest rate rises to worry about.

There are at least signs that manufacturing is finally making a clear recovery, growing by more than the service sector and at the fastest rate since 2010 (although given manufacturing’s steeper fall during the recession we’re some way off the much hoped-for rebalancing).

But with the good economic news comes the inevitable complaint that we don’t have enough engineering graduates and that the ones we are producing don’t have the right skills to fuel industry’s needs.

Research released today by manufacturers’ organization EEF shows 66 per cent of firms plan to recruit engineering graduates in the next three years, but that 80 per cent of them think universities need to prioritise making students employable and 35 per cent have recently turned to EU students, who are often seen has having better industry experience.

There is certainly a case for universities to look again to ensure their engineering courses are giving students the best opportunities, and for businesses to communicate their needs more clearly. Chairing a recent workshop for the Engineering Professors’ Council on the topic of postgraduate engineering, The Engineer was amazed to see how little university representatives understood what engineering firms wanted from masters and PhD-level candidates.

There is also a strong argument for greater encouragement of industrial placements and sandwich years as part of undergraduate courses, and for more firms to offer such experience.

But there’s also a need for employers to check their expectations and understanding of what universities are for. They are not training colleges or vocational schools but places for students to undertake deep study. They shouldn’t neglect the issue of employability but they also can’t be expected to train students in using specific machines and software at the expense of greater understanding of engineering principles.

Engineering firms also have to step up and take responsibility for training and skills – and indeed many are, providing placements, sponsoring students and putting their existing employees through university. But the numbers doing these things are half (or less) the numbers calling for more from higher education.

While all this is going on, the struggle continues to get more young people onto engineering courses in the first place. A new set of recommendations on careers advice in school raises the hope of some improvement in this sphere.

The approach set out by Sir John Holman in a review for the charitable Gatsby Foundation is to give schools more resources and incentives to improve career guidance provision, which is currently patchy at best – less than a quarter of students receive more than one face-to-face advice session by the time they’re 18.

This approach fits with the current trend for giving schools more freedom to set their own agendas but leaves hanging the question of whether schools will take up the challenge – even with greater pressure from Ofsted and the inclusion of student destinations in league tables. And, especially if careers guidance is provided by teachers rather than dedicated advisers, it won’t address the problem of stereotyping and cultural bias against engineering jobs.