Stalling skills engine needs a cash injection

29th September 2006 at 01:00
We need to attract more students into engineering, says Gareth Roberts

When the JCB Dieselmax team broke the world land speed record this summer we saw an inspiring partnership of skill and investment that delivered awesome engine power and, ultimately, a winning performance.

In education and business, the engine as a metaphor for power is frequently linked to skills. Even the Government's recent further education white paper describes the FE sector as "the engine room of a successful economy, with the power to transform lives".

Yet business and industry tell us they are facing a critical vocational skills gap, which is hindering their ability to compete successfully. So, while I wholeheartedly agree with the Government's description of FE, at today's levels of funding on engineering, manufacturing and technology courses, this particular engine is in danger of stalling.

Such courses are resource intensive, but they are funded at the same level as other non-technical subjects. This puts engineering at a distinct disadvantage in delivering high standards of teaching.

New analysis from the Engineering and Technology Board will show that the number of students on engineering courses has fallen: in 2002, there were 181,000; two years ago this had dropped to 158,300. Furthermore, although there has been an increase in success rates on such courses, up four percentage points to 63 per cent in 20034, they remain below the average when compared to all areas of learning and the gap has only closed marginally.

Investment is crucial, but as JCB will tell you, performance is a team effort and there are additional areas the engineering community needs to tackle.

Recruitment problems within engineering are an issue of image and parity of esteem. We need to challenge the perception that vocational routes are for "other people's children". We also need to be inspirational in promoting rewarding careers in this field.

We are also concerned that engineering is failing to encourage gender diversity. Courses are still heavily dominated by male learners. While the percentage of women has increased from 11 to 14 per cent over the past two years, this is still less than a quarter of the proportion of women in all other subjects (61 per cent).

Furthermore, students on engineering courses are more likely to be aged 16 to 18 - but we must not ignore the skill potential of the 19 to 24-year-olds or those people over 24. In a "skills for life" not "jobs for life" marketplace, employers and the Government need to recognise the potential contribution from people over the age of 18.

If employers can expect individuals to stay in a job for between three and five years, more investment and employer engagement needs to be made in linking continuing professional development with the FE sector.

The Engineering and Technology Board is also exploring the role of the employer in engineering and technology further education. Research shows that, while employer involvement is variable, there are many positive examples of partnerships. Over the coming months we will be sharing the results of this work with the business community to improve the value that business and industry bring to vocational education.

FE is an unsung hero of education, developing the intermediate wealth-creating skills to underpin and grow the UK economy. The Government needs to give FE providers adequate funds to teach engineering. The business community needs to support the sector by identifying their skills requirements and adding value to the learning experience, and the engineering community needs to improve the perception of engineering careers.

If this team works together then we will deliver enough power and skills to make vocational education in the UK a truly high-performance engine.

Professor Sir Gareth Roberts is chairman of the Engineering and Technology BoardThe ETB conference, Skills for the economy, a workforce for the future, is being held on October 12 2006 (

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