06 Jul 2011
Getting more apprentices to act as ambassadors for engineering could help narrow the UK skills gap, says STEMNET chief executive Kirsten Bodley
When it comes to showcasing how interesting a career in engineering can be, there is no substitute for first-hand experience. So it should come as no surprise to find that demand for visits by STEM Ambassadors is growing.
Run by STEMNET, the STEM Ambassadors programme sends volunteers from the engineering, science and manufacturing sectors into schools and other institutions to tell students about their jobs. Alongside classroom career talks, the ambassadors can also help to establish STEM clubs and events.
"We try to create opportunities for people to engage with STEM in its widest sense," says STEMNET chief executive Kirsten Bodley. Nearly 30,000 ambassadors go into schools, fulfilling the organistation's remit to reach students between the ages of five and nineteen. Visits have been undertaken at the vast majority of UK secondary schools. "The power of role models should never be underestimated. We work all over the UK and any school, any partner, can send us a request for some ambassador support and we will put that through," adds Bodley.
As well as benefiting from government funding, the initiative has support from the top of the STEM establishment. "Scientists like me have a very important role to play in inspiring the next generation to see these areas as exciting," says Lord Professor Robert Winston, "both through sharing experiences and offering young people the chance to get involved in practical work in a real-life scientific environment."
For many young people, the service provides the first contact they have ever had with an engineer or scientist. Many children, and their parents, have little knowledge of what engineers do. If they have no engineers in their families – and in many areas they may not have anybody in their family who has even been employed – then pupils can easily be unaware of what the engineering sector has to offer.
That doesn't mean that all schools make the most of the service, however. "Once they have experienced ambassadors they are much more likely to ask us back," says Bodley. "But it's one of those things that, until teachers have tried it and felt it and understood it, then anything at all, not just STEM ambassadors, seems to be too difficult. They haven't got the capacity, they haven't got the time to think about it."
The sheer workload that teachers cope with is something that Bodley, a former teacher herself, understands well. Her mission now is to work more closely with schools to get the practice of using STEM Ambassadors embedded more deeply into the fabric of teaching.
Part of that process will involve a drive to increase the proportion of ambassadors, currently around 30%, who come from an apprentice or technician background. As well as increasing the diversity of the ambassadors, this should also have an impact on the perception, in some schools, that apprenticeships are not as valuable as degrees. Visits from successful apprentices can go a long way to changing misconceptions among teaching staff. "It means that a lot of the pupils don't have the chance to be exposed to some of these things, so what we're trying to do with our ambassadors is get more apprentices in front of the kids to actually tell it as it is," says Bodley.
This should also have a positive impact on the currently inconsistent standards of careers advice in schools, she adds. "There's a big job to do. Young people do tend to go to their subject teachers before their careers advisors, for careers advice. But, and this has been a big topic for debate around all our partner organisations, those teachers just don't know, because most of them haven't worked [in the engineering or manufacturing industry].
"They cannot actually talk about whether you can do mechanical engineering or electrical engineering, or whatever, because they don't actually know what's what. And it's a big ask actually, of a careers advisor, to know the fine detail of every type of sector that there might be... we are not an advisory service. But it goes back to supporting the teachers."
Large employers are keen to help teachers, too. As the destination of the students leaving the education system, a number of companies support STEMNET. "We do have around 3,000 employers who work with us on the STEM Ambassadors programme," she says. "From the very, very large – BP, EON, EDF, British Energy, Mott McDonald, Arup to name but a few engineering ones, right down to SMEs. For example at Studio Works, which is always the one that springs to mind, there are four or five of them there and they are all STEM ambassadors."
The employers are keen to spread the word that they need skilled staff, but can't always find them.
This is a common problem. In the capital, STEMNET works closely with Transport for London. "They don't have a problem with the number of applications; they have a problem with getting people with the right skills levels. Because they want all the usual academic qualifications, plus all the top level vocational qualification, it's not a second-rate choice." Bodley sees STEMNET's role as getting that message through to schools.
With many SMEs claiming they have difficulty attracting enough apprentices of the right calibre, STEMNET is seeking to increase its involvement with small companies still further. Large employers are supportive of this, with companies such as Rolls-Royce keen on helping companies in their own supply chains, she says: "Some of the large companies are beginning to think much more about supporting those that supply to them."
Transport for London
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