Skills and education for the future of engineering

Skills and education for the future of engineering

By Paul Jackson, Executive Director of Jasia Education Ltd and Author of the Talent 2050 report. Paul is well known for STEM initiatives like the Big Bang Fair and commentating on skills issues as the former CEO of Engineering UK and a current school and university board member.

 

secondary school studentWhen we kicked off the Talent 2050 project last year we wanted to find out how the skills needs in engineering were changing and what could be done to make certain that the UK has the quantity and quality of skills needed in the future.

The project looked at the wide footprint of engineering, including IT and construction, and we aimed to look at sectors that use engineering skills too – an ever-increasing number such as logistics and retail.

The project received input from engineers across the UK and some fascinating insight from them on how we can change our worries over a "leaky talent pipeline" to bringing people proactively from a "reservoir of talent".

The delivery and operation of critical infrastructure, the development of rail and the motor industry and our adoption of the Internet of Things over the next few decades will be dependent on getting this right. We risk that all sectors will be chasing digital skills for higher productivity and that the models of the past, in education, in recruitment, and professional registration will serve us poorly in the future.

"We found significant barriers and bottlenecks persist, and the engineering sector’s poor diversity record has not been addressed."

Six recommendations cover recruitment barriers, changes to education and support for “intersectoral” mobility, which is a term we use for opening up recruitment into engineering at later career stages.

We drew on 40 sources to assess current supply and future demand and heard from 150 engineers around the country, including a distinguished advisory group. Material from Pearson (Commission on Sustainable Learning for Life, Work and a Changing Economy) and Universities UK/CBI (Skills needs in England – the employer perspective) emphasised the need for lifelong learning through a more effective and flexible system and the Commission estimated a £108bn gain to the economy in getting the right mix.

STEM initiatives have helped increase the supply pipeline from education, but demographic trends and migration effects have outweighed those impacts. We found significant barriers and bottlenecks persist, and the engineering sector’s poor diversity record has not been addressed.

The workshops highlighted potential to recruit from alternative sectors and provide the engineering knowledge through a mix of training and access to the knowledge base, potentially through AI.

Today, individuals build a mass of engineering knowledge, through university or apprenticeship, later developing wider skills. It is a T shape which creates the "leaky pipeline" of talent with no potential to top up later. Key qualifications in that pipeline are skewed towards male participation; A Level physics has a 4:1 male-female ratio and computer science 9:1.

Three skills pillars were suggested in the workshops: people skills, creative thinking and enterprise, alongside core technical knowledge. It was also noted that ethics will become increasingly relevant as technology changes and artificial intelligence creates opportunities to exploit the existing knowledge base across all occupations.

Intersectoral recruitment can work; the Open University requires no specific qualification requirements to take a degree. The Sky Academy trains and recruits into the company’s IT workforce without demanding computer science or IT qualifications and has challenged stereotypes to find a diverse group with talent.

"Talent 2050 has identified that the profession could look very different in the future and the change has already started."

We believe engineering can do the same. This doesn’t mean that the depth of knowledge in structural engineering should be reduced in critical roles but it does mean that there are many roles already and more to come where wider skills will be essential and some STEM skills can be added later.

This change will need a funding system to support it, which could build on employer schemes, career development loans and the apprenticeship levy. Proactive recruitment could be supported by the professional engineering institutions as mentors to a more diverse group entering the profession at different stages of their careers. It will work best if we can embrace digital tools for learning at all stages of education, including in schools.

Talent 2050 has identified that the profession could look very different in the future and the change has already started. It will need to accelerate if the UK is to be at the leading edge of the next industrial revolution.

 

Published: 8 July 2019 

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