Should industry re-evaluate what educational establishments, particularly universities, can do to encourage and inspire more people into the sector?

2018 will see the launch of the cross-government campaign, The Year of Engineering, which is aimed at raising the profile of engineering amongst young people.

The engineering industry faces a number of serious challenges. One is that there’s a shortage of engineers, which is at risk of intensifying if there is a restriction of free movement post-Brexit. As part of a solution to this issue, I want to see a re-evaluation of what educational establishments, particularly universities, can do to encourage and inspire more people into the industry.

We must fish in a bigger pond. Entrance requirements for engineering degree courses, such as a high grade in A-Level maths, may mean that universities are missing out on valuable candidates. The level of maths needed in many branches of professional engineering can be developed at university from a GCSE base. Why not consider some students with an A-Level in other subjects which are equally relevant? An A Level in art, for example, demonstrates creative ability, which is highly important to engineering, and would provide engineers with creative tendencies as well as analysts.

Although high A-Level grades may indicate a good degree, let’s challenge universities to look at the wider picture and to consider people who did not excel at school. The UCAS application process could include an interview where emphasis is placed on attitude and potential, not just grades. I write from experience; my A Level grades were not outstanding, but I graduated with a first-class degree.

It’s also important to strengthen the relationship between universities and employers, and to take a collaborative approach to shaping the best candidates for future roles. If employers are actively involved in helping to shape an engineering course, for example by sitting on a university advisory board, they can help to make it as relevant as possible to the workplace. Universities are always looking for skilled professional engineers to get involved, not just to give lectures and provide information, but also to critique projects and assist with interview skills.

We must fish in a bigger pond

While a year’s placement in industry helps prepare students for a career in engineering, employers should invite educators into the workplace too. The stronger the relationship between employers and educational establishments, the better everyone can build an understanding of the environment where the students will work and help them start their careers with a good appreciation of how to apply their learning.

I invited the views of two civil engineering students at Plymouth University, who are both working in industry for the year.

Andrew Huggins, 20, believes that as well as widening the net to engineering degree applicants, there should be more focus at school level. He says: “The potential fall in foreign investment in construction post-Brexit could mean that there are less exciting projects – like the Shard - to inspire the next generation of schoolchildren to study engineering. This means that it’s more important than ever to get into schools and drum up interest in this field.” Despite a 59% fall in total apprenticeship starts since the government introduced the apprenticeship levy, he believes that “this levy is the first step towards ensuring high-quality training for apprentices, but the government and professional institutions should do more to push apprenticeships as a valid stepping-stone to a career in engineering.”

Catherine Farrell, 21, thinks that more can be done to reduce the number of students who drop out of university without graduating. She says: “If universities offered a more diverse choice of modules that cover practical site-based skills these would complement the academic element of the courses, this would give students a clearer vision of what they will practice when they finish their course, and motivate them to see it through.” Although most universities excel in preparing students academically, Catherine also thinks that “more importance could be placed on the transferable skills that are used every day in the workplace such as CAD, writing construction documents, and surveying.”

Thomasons is taking a range of measures to improve the flow of skilled employees to our business, such as sponsoring applications from our own staff for permanent residency, when required. But to continue this flow, we must help widen and improve the source of skilled engineers.