Schools under the spotlight

News editor

What is going on inside the metal and wood-working shops of Britain’s schools?

Not enough, it would seem, according to some of the attendees at this week’s Youth in Aviation event that was held at the House of Lords.

Youth in Aviation is an umbrella organisation with representation from a range of organisations with the laudable remit of encouraging young people into aviation.

Its slogan says ‘the power of aviation should not be underestimated in its ability to inspire the young to succeed’ and a number attendees were keen discuss exactly why there is a shortfall of young people heading their call.

Some were in a position to look back on their own long and successful careers, with one confiding that the Harrier and Concorde projects were the catalyst to his devotion to engineering and aviation.

Such projects, he said, were seen at the time as rather glamorous and aspiring to be part of them held a certain cache inside and outside of the engineering profession. One wonders, but won’t indulge in the environs of an informal Friday Blog, whether those working in Britain on the F-35, Typhoon or various Airbus projects are similarly enthused and indeed afforded credence beyond the work’s perimeter fence? Your thoughts below, please.

To get back on track, two distinct strands emerged from discussions about young people and the uptake of STEM subjects: an apparent lack of awareness of opportunities in the aviation supply chain, and certain failures within schools.

The first point was illustrated at a different event on October 13, 2014 when Boeing and the Royal Aeronautical Society presented their film to accompany the Schools Build a Plane Challenge.

I asked a teacher who’d brought his plane-building class from Bristol if his students were keen to follow a career in aerospace?

Yes, he replied, they – and their fellow pupils – would like nothing more than a foothold in aviation but here’s the problem: OEMs and Tier 1 companies in the region run apprenticeship schemes that are over-subscribed.

Those larger companies can’t conjure vacancies from thin air but they do provide employment indirectly, a point illustrated perfectly on Wednesday by Richard Mills – strategy director of Boeing UK who said: ‘[Boeing] directly employs 1,800 people in the UK but we’re still growing and recruiting. The company supports over 55,000 UK jobs with our activities in the UK, including over 9,000 people in our supply chain that consists of over 250 companies and with which we spent £1bn in 2013.’

The figures are clearly impressive but one that is not comes from Nestle UK & Ireland, which published the results of a survey this week showing 51 per cent of respondents aged 14-16 having little or no knowledge about the types of STEM-related jobs that are available.

Industry itself is less than impressed with the availability of suitably STEM-qualified recruits, with 34 per cent of those responding to the same survey saying the situation had worsened over the past five years.

Schools find themselves open to criticism once more with Nestle noting that 52 per cent of science and maths teachers who took part in the research admitted that they don’t know what STEM-related businesses are looking for in new recruits.

The company notes: ‘There is a clear need for an improvement in career guidance in schools and colleges and for teachers to have more direct exposure to industry.’

Schools came under further scrutiny in conversations at the House of Lords with accusations of primary school children being frightened off maths by educators who aren’t comfortable with teaching the subject.

Others believe the skills base is dwindling because of a lack of exposure to metal and woodworking activities in schools. It seems the days of working on projects involving use of milling machines, lathes, brazing hearths and oxy acetylene welding equipment et al is virtually over.

Nestle observed from its research that British businesses are increasingly taking matters in to their own hands and are promoting STEM-related careers.

They said: ‘Over a third (37 per cent) are taking an active role in promoting STEM skills, while nearly a third of those (29 per cent) are opting for school and college visits as a way of engaging with the future workforce.’

A fine example of this style of engagement can be found at Marshall Aerospace in Cambridge, which has launched the Marshall Launchpad Scholarship, an initiative to stimulate interest and enthusiasm for engineering amongst young people aged from six to 18.

They say: ‘When asked what people in engineering do, only one in six 11-16 year olds could actually answer the question. Marshall LaunchPad aims to educate young people about what ‘engineering’ actually is, what it involves and how young people can be a part of this huge industry.’

A particularly impressive element of this scheme is that it is being run by early career engineers who are balancing their day jobs, family commitments, and further study in order to reach out to young people.

Hands on skills are being encouraged at Brooklands Museum too, which is introducing a production line for young people to assemble aircraft on. CAD models are all well and good but nothing quite beats a finished product coupled with the acquisition of science and engineering knowledge.

The number of STEM-related outreach programmes is too numerous to list here but be assured that they are doing their best to help promote a profession that needs 600,000 engineers over the next five years, particularly with initiatives such as the Your Life campaign.

There was, of course, a good reason for YIA to hold its event at the House of Lords, with politicians dropping by to learn about the sterling work being done by likes of Aerobility, The Air League Trust, Boeing, BAE Systems, the Royal Aeronautical Society and many others.

One would like to assume that our politicians are fully briefed on the importance of STEM and the contribution engineers make to the economy. It does seem quite counter intuitive, however, to think that schoolchildren are sometimes let down by the very people employed to broaden their horizons. Get that piece right and we might one day be able to talk of a skills surplus rather than continually panicking about skills shortages.