Friday, 5 February 2016

Can't get the staff

With a severe skills shortage that shows no signs of slowing and an aging workforce, much time and column inches have been devoted to finding a solution. According to some engineers, part of the solution lies not at university or even at A-Level, but at GCSE with the nation’s Design Technology students. Angela Ringguth, Professional Development Consultant to CIBSE, writes on the need for good quality design teachers.

The fear that there is a skills crisis in the Engineering sector is nothing new; newspapers and magazines of all stripes, from trade papers to the nationals, regularly feature articles bemoaning the lack of qualified graduates. And they’re right to be concerned, because we are entering what promises to be a golden age of Engineering as budgets increase, construction booms and ever more stringent climate change targets require inventive solutions to meet.

UK engineers are in demand around the world for their abilities across all sectors, but we risk missing out on this renaissance if there is no talent pipeline in place to keep up with demand.

New multi-billion pound developments include the revamped Battersea Power Station
There is obviously no easy solution to such a long-running problem, and most of the efforts seem to be aimed at capturing school-leavers choosing their University courses, or skilled graduates with one eye on a lucrative City pay packet. Solutions proposed include free tuition for in-demand STEM courses, double pay for new engineers and a raft of new alternative qualifications and apprenticeships to entice the less academic.

However, a growing movement believes that part of the solution lies much earlier in a young person’s education. Currently, the shortage of 2,000 Design and Technology (D&T) teachers means that two out of three schools will not have adequate provision by next year. This is a serious problem for the engineering sector, because D&T lessons provide the necessary focus on practical, hands-on skills that set children out on an engineering path.

The bread and butter of an engineer’s education remains the hard sciences and maths, continued from primary all the way through to A-level, and D&T has been seen as the poor relation to these by parents and teachers advising pupils on their options. However, this attitude is an unfortunate misunderstanding of the ability that design teachers have to instil a spark in a child’s mind that can be carried forward into a fully-fledged career.

Children try out the friction plate at an Imagineering event
Like most jobs that require professional qualifications, actual hands-on work experience could be several years away for a young secondary school child. During this time they might acquire unfortunate ideas of engineering as a boring, stuffy, dirty job that doesn’t factor highly in their ambitions. What D&T allows kids to do is discover the wonder behind engineering that involves problem solving, creativity and technical skill using advanced tools, computers and materials.

Putting complex ideas to practical use is a rare opportunity for young pupils, and D&T allows them to discover the huge number of practical connections to allied professions that engineers must also consider; from design, to business, to the arts – there are engineering puzzles to be solved in every field. D&T marries the technical with the practical, a skillset often lacking in newly minted graduates, and provides a pathway to an apprenticeship for those seeking an alternative route.

In order to ensure that D&T doesn’t fall by the wayside, and close an invaluable gateway to engineering, it is important that the subject is taken more seriously in schools. Recognising the training and hiring of new D&T teachers as an important priority is a place to start, that is why CIBSE supports the Designed and Made in Britain…?  Campaign at www.data.org.uk.

This won’t solve the recruitment crisis in a stroke, but it will help instil a respect and appreciation for engineering throughout the education system, and allow kids to experience its joys.

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