THE creation of a skills council for engineering will be a pivotal factor in the UK economy, science minister Lord Sainsbury said this week.
The ability of colleges to recruit engineering students, lecturers'
performance and quality of work-based training will be key factors in the Government's attempt to retrieve the UK's position as a manufacturing nation.
The Department for Trade and Industry minister was speaking at a conference on the future of engineering organised by lecturers' union Natfhe on Tuesday.
He said: "The major problem is the supply of technical and intermediate skills I We need to convey to young people the excitement and opportunities that the new engineering industries offer."
A sector skills council is being set up to oversee Government-sponsored training in science and engineering. Of the 20 to 30 SSCs being created, it is the closest to getting approval from Education Secretary Charles Clarke.
The push for more vocational graduates, in which FE has a stake as a provider of foundation courses and full degrees, is proving a test of "joined-up Government", or at least joined-up quangos.
Work is in progress to bring together the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, the Learning and Skills Council and the Sector Skills Development Agency under a joint remit to give more coherence to vocational education.
He said: "The current system is too large, too complex, not easily understood and not meeting employers' needs."
Engineering and manufacturing account for 14.3 per cent of all advanced modern apprenticeships - those training up to NVQ level 3, the equivalent of A-levels, and for 3.9 per cent of foundation MAs (up to NVQ level 2, equivalent to five GCSEs at grades A*-C). In some cases, English employers have been funded to take MAs older than 25, a change introduced in Wales, where officials have regarded the age limit as discriminatory.
Ministers know the success of the vocational drive will rely on selling the idea to students and improving the connections between Whitehall and industry. Experience has shown that young people have often been better than the experts at predicting future job prospects.
The growth of media courses in the 1980s and 1990s was widely criticised, but now the proportion of those students in media jobs is higher than that of law graduates working as lawyers.
Lord Sainsbury said: "Our vision of the future of the UK is of an economy with a high value-added, high-skill, high-technology manufacturing sector I Engineering is crucial to that vision."
A Government-backed review of skills, covering 5 to 19-year-olds, identified three areas for improvement: "enterprise capability", the capacity to handle uncertainty and respond to change; "financial literacy", covering basic money management; and "understanding economic and business issues", including awareness of the market- place, competition and other concepts such as economic growth.
Paul Mackney, general secretary of Natfhe, said: "Unless we tackle the decline in engineering education, the UK's position as a leading manufacturing country will be under threat. People see engineering as unglamorous, and this has had a heavy impact on student recruitmentI The country has always been proud of its inventors, but we don't do enough to encourage their skills. Students need to be convinced that engineering is a rewarding career."