IN THE early Nineties, British Aerospace devised an important theory about creating better rocket scientists: get them working in the industry while at university.
The idea seems obvious but, back in 1992, nowhere was offering the kind of course that would give the aeronautics giant the new brand of young engineers it needed. After scouting round, the company chose Loughborough University to run the first sponsored systems engineering course, which started off with an experimental intake of 30 students.
It hasn't looked back. Seven years on, and the university is turning out more than 80 graduates annually, valuable employees as soon as they arrive. The secret is that the five-year course includes 72 weeks of on-the-job experience, with eight work placements, including a salaried job for the whole of the third year.
British Aerospace now sponsors 40 per intake, costing pound;1 million a year. Marconi Electronic Systems has also come on board sponsoring 40 and the Defence Evaluation Research Agency supports another two. Loughborough is running a recruitment campaign in schools, other universities have developed similar courses and more companies are signing on with sponsorship.
The point is that the new employees can hit the ground running. "One of the problems with a guy who comes straight through with a flash-in-the-pan degree is that it takes a lot of time to get that theoretical knowledge adapted to the workplace," says Kevin Burke of British Aerospace.
Mr Burke, who also spends two to three days per week lecturing on the course, adds: "We get to look at the students and know a bit about them. They have got a good feel for us and we know what they are good at. There is very little induction required."
The students are circulated around the company. This is especially important for so-called systems engineers because their job building rockets, fighter planes and racing cars requires a broad overview to solve problems on several different levels.
"They come back from the year out and they have grown up," says Loughborough's projects officer, Amanda Pearce.
"Companies want them being happy to work for them, but they are not bound in to a contract. It's a noble commitment - they want to increase the supply of this sort of graduate available to the industry."
The programme boasts a 100 per cent employment record for its students while, for the university, it is addressing future training needs and providing valuable new resources. As for British Aerospace, Mr Burke confirms that, two years into their jobs, the first graduates are out-performing those who did not go through the programme.