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Closing the engineering skills gap

Our ambition to guide the right people on to the right path

By Peter Finegold  

Engineering is what humans do. We use our intelligence to diagnose and then solve problems to aid our survival and improve wellbeing of those around us.

The story of engineering is really the history of civilisation, and yet while the modern products of engineering are amongst our most prized possessions, a shortage of people with the right skills in the sector remains a persistent challenge for employers and the UK economy.

Given that engineering accounts for more than £400bn of GDP—around one-quarter of the UK’s total—it comes as no surprise that employers, politicians and professional engineering institutions all share a passion for putting the skills issue right.

And yet after four or more decades of interventions, and tens, if not 100s of millions, of pounds spent on trying to attract future engineers, companies continue to complain of shortages of the right people with the right skills to design, create and manufacture the future.

This suggests that we may have been pursuing the wrong path. In recent years the Institution of Mechanical Engineers has sought to explore and challenge received wisdom on how best to promote engineering, which we are setting out here.

1. Engineering should be part of every pupil’s school experience

The low visibility of engineering in our schools means that the UK is heavily reliant on a narrow cadre of young people, often from families with engineering heritage, to become the nation’s industrialists, manufacturers, innovators and designers. If the UK is to make the best use of all of its talent, our schools should play a greater role in changing the way we frame engineering. This means a school experience that makes explicit (in science and design & technology lessons) what engineering is, and where practical problem-solving is an assessed part of pupils’ schooling.

2. Reframe the engineering narrative

Promote engineering to young people as people-focused, problem-solving and socially beneficial. Engineering has traditionally reached out to “its own” with an implicit message: “I’m an engineer, be like me!” Since UK engineers over-represent on gender (male), background (middle-class, white) and family capital (“science and engineering heritage”), evidence is that such a re-framing would increase diversity and extend creativity. This could be done through defining engineering less by the objects it produces or even the career options on offer, but through the thinking process that we all use but which engineers have honed.

3. Challenge bias in our education system against technical routes

We need to change the stories we tell our children—for example, how highly skilled technicians are often seen as the real experts in industry, and how many rise to the top of their companies. The government’s proposed T-Level, technical alternative to A-Levels, is a bold attempt to redress decades in which there was only one measure of success in school—the advancement to an academic university degree. In order for both T-Levels and the drive for modern apprenticeships to succeed, we must weave into the school more authentic experience of what employment means in a new industrial age in which academic knowledge and technical knowhow are valued most where they become merged.

4. Inspiration alone is not enough

National outreach campaigns and ambassadorial initiatives have a role to play. However the ambition to address the skills gap through outreach and role models alone may not be sufficient. A paper produced by the University of Exeter challenged whether informal education had in fact increased or widened participation in Stem education. The plethora of well-meaning outreach is like uneven icing on an otherwise absent cake. The challenge is that the funnelling effect of our narrow A-Level study (in three of the four UK nations) prematurely diverts pupils away from continuing with physics, design and technology or computer science—subjects with an obvious path into engineering. The engineering sector would benefit from a change to a broad based national baccalaureate that would likely see more students with more diverse skill sets embarking on engineering courses.

5. New models and diverse paths

Engineering is synonymous with academic rigour and technical expertise with a well-established “pipeline” path. This approach means that employers can be confident of skills and training, levels of managerial responsibility and technical expertise of an individual engineer. But the rigidity of the linear pipeline may exclude individuals with the potential to become engineers, who did not have the foresight or experience to embark on the “right course” from the outset. To combat this and complement more traditional routes, new HE courses are springing up in the UK. In parallel to this, established courses are exploring whether changing entry criteria, adopting more problem-based, project-based or experiential learning and greater focus on work-related learning opportunities during the degree course would attract a new cohort of women, people from minority groups and others wishing to move from other sectors.

We are currently nearing the end of the government sponsored “Year of Engineering,” which has had a significant impact on raising the profile of engineering amongst young people. It is vital that we don’t lose this momentum and more continues to be done to place engineering at the heart of our education systems and attract students into engineering careers—the Institution of Mechanical Engineers will continue to work with schools, government and industry to make progress towards this goal.

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