Facing the skills war
12 Oct 2010
It's a battle without machine guns, aerial bombardment or nuclear warheads – but the casualty could prove to be the death of engineering and manufacturing as we know it. Paul Fanning speaks to two generals in the war on the looming skills gap
Is education in tune with what employers need?
John Hayes UK Minister of State for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning
As far as John Hayes is concerned, a balanced engineering and manufacturing sector is one that reflects an equilibrium of academic and vocational skills: something undergrads would do well to remember. It's something that industry has been aware of for decades – and it seems that, finally, everyone else is catching up.
"Both practical and technical education in fields like engineering is critically important to our economy," says Hayes, "If you undermine the worth of practical skills, you weaken society, because it is only when each feels valued that all feel valued."
In the UK, Hayes points to the government's new plans for encouraging vocational education, which includes the intention to open at least 12 university technical colleges, with a minimum of one in each major city. These colleges will take students from other schools at the age of 14. The first UTC to open will be in Aston in 2012, where pupils will specialise in engineering and manufacturing, alongside core academic GCSE subjects. Students will have the opportunity to work with Aston University engineering staff and students, as well as local businesses and further education colleges.
Creating such 'pathways' is one thing: actually getting people to follow them is another. The fact remains that manufacturing and engineering are still not seen by many children (or their parents) in the UK as attractive career choices. Hayes believes there is a job to be done in challenging cultural assumptions in the UK about manufacturing and engineering.
"We have to challenge some of the assumptions about practical competence." Hayes states. "Other countries have historically done this rather better than us, so we have to detach ourselves from previous bourgeois assumptions about the character of learning. For too long we've conned ourselves that all that mattered was book learning, when the work of people's hands, craft and technical skills have just as much value and deserve the same status. So there is something about the aesthetic of practical learning that has to be recalibrated in order to make that pathway seductive, as well as navigable."
He continues: "We shouldn't underestimate things like work experience. We shouldn't undervalue the direct link between education and industry, but I think it's also about making sure that what's taught and tested is crafted with, and for, businesses in the real economy."
So Hayes is confident that, in the UK at least, moves are firmly underway to align education directly with industry. He concludes: "It's about that interface between industry and education; it's about that interface between the world of work and the world of learning."
We're all in it together
Andrew Reynolds Smith Divisional chief executive, GKN
With 250 years of technological innovation and manufacturing that spans making cannonballs for the Battle of Waterloo, Spitfires in WWII and composite wing structures for the Airbus A380, GKN began as a small South Wales ironworks and now employs more than 40,000 people in over 30 countries – growth it attributes to constantly innovating and, perhaps more importantly, welcoming change.
It's no surprise then that Reynolds Smith is calling for change: changes in skills delivery, public perception and sector strategy. That there is a skills crisis in engineering and manufacturing, particularly in the UK, he has no doubt. His view is that outmoded perceptions of the industry, and failure to create a coherent message about the sector and its goals, are in dire need of re-engineering.
"There's a role to be played here by the manufacturers and engineers themselves, in terms of the way they present manufacturing," he comments. "Manufacturing and engineering aren't just about making parts. They are about designing them, developing them, industrialising them, marketing them, distributing them. That's how you create value."
That value carries through the whole manufacturing and engineering process, Reynolds Smith asserts.
"It's impossible to forget that engineering is at the heart of everything we do. The fact that I'm not designing products now does not take away from the passion that I've got for the things that we make and the way we make it. It's something that I still love, because I can see the difference it makes."
As far as he's concerned, the sky is the limit for young people interested in manufacturing and engineering. "As an engineer, you've got a tremendous opportunity to affect the way the world is developing. Look at the challenges we have in reducing CO2 emissions or feeding an ever-increasing population – the solutions will come from engineered and manufactured products. There are engineering opportunities all over the world; as a career choice, your possibilities are limitless."
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