Are we avoiding the graduate issue?

At World Skills this week, much of the conversation revolved around the need to inspire the younger generation, make them believe that they can and will succeed, and give them ambition. There was also a great deal of talk about 'practical learning', and the connection between these two themes.

Indeed the majority of the 1000-odd stands were practically driven, offering hands on exhibits, large screen displays and interactive demos. And there was definitely a lot of focus in particular on engineering and technology.

Much of the talk by ministers and key industry leaders was about apprenticeships and expanding on those; making it easier for firms to put apprenticeships in place and removing red tape. Figures quoted were that within three years apprentices pay for themselves. There is a drive to make these as financially attractive to companies as possible with minimum costs and maximum payback in the long term.

And, for the most part, apprenticeships are working well. They are popular with both companies and also the people that do them. Every engineering apprenticeship is massively oversubscribed by applications. This is great. And I applaud it. But I can't help but feel there is a lost generation here that is being given a bit of a raw deal.

Graduates have ambition and drive by definition. They have been inspired. They are interested in and excited about engineering. They have taken the steps. But, for them, the skills investment is almost entirely their own to burden.

They face £9K a year tuition fees and are usually expected to have some kind of work experience on their CV to be competitive by the time they come to apply for jobs. Work experience is working for free. Rightly or wrongly that is usually the translation.

And when they do get a job it is likely to pay between £16-20k. Yet by this point their debts are probably twice that amount, or more. The payback period for them is decades, a far cry from the streamlined, incentivised investment that firms are being encouraged to undertake with apprenticeship schemes.

Many graduates I have spoken to feel disillusioned by the reality of their undertaking. They feel that their degree was mis-sold to them and doesn't open the doors that they thought it would, and were told it would.

Companies frequently argue that graduates are not always fit for the job, and need at least a year in a 'Graduate Training Scheme' to bring them up to scratch. What has happened exactly? Why are graduates being so badly let down both financially and by actual undergraduate training?

Are we going to get ourselves in to a situation where we have companies entirely full of apprentices with no academics? It should not be either or, but a compliment of both. Yes apprentices can re-skill and go to university later on in life, but the point is we still need graduates.

Apprenticeships are fast becoming route of choice in to engineering with the academic route being used as a backup. So while there is a great deal of investment in skills, it is being so heavily skewed that it is ignoring the real problem. The investment in skills by firms and the Government seems to be levied entirely towards apprenticeships and if you choose to go the academic route, it is down to the individual to foot the bill, and risk not even being fit for work at the end of it.

It is of tremendous concern that the current way to skill engineers through the academic route is largely failing the individual, industry and the future skills base of the country. Perhaps I am being excessively cynical, but I think the real skills problem at the academic end of the spectrum is being completely ignored.

Justin Cunningham

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If you opened up this discussion as a thread there would be hundreds of comments from the real world. It was common in the oil & gas to say negative comments about enginnering.
Typically "If my kids show any interest in engineering I'll throw them out!"
Justin you are not being cynical, in fact you are understating the situation, it's far worse than you think.
I'm retired after 50 year working as an electrical engineer, loads of experience, practical skills, from construction & commisioning, till my last 15 years as Senior Design Engineer. I went to work for a French firm in the 1970s as Britain shut down its manufacturing, and seen from overseas, it opened my eyes to the sad state of the UK engineering industry at that time. I had a great time working on massive construction projects mainly in oil & gas, cement, copper mining & smelting & other process plants.
I did come back about 1994 with Balfor Beatty but things had gone from bad to worse, I left again as Senior Electrical Engineer with Kuwait Oil Company for 9 years before I retired in 2004.
I was always something of an inventor with many patents & ideas usually from solving practical engineering problems on site. I tried to lobby MPs, Venture Capitalists, various companies to promote my ideas but having spent many thousands on patents, travel & prototypes but not much happened. Seems like they're on a different planet, even now.
Now that the rich and privileged can see that you cannot generate wealth in a country by passing money around, you just rob one to pay the other, there's panic in the old boys network. It only works if you do it globally when you rob another country and bring it to the UK. They now want to start making things again, but they don't want to pay.
This is only a brief description from a real engineer's point of view, I can write a history from the 1950s if you want it.

Comment Tony Smee, 08/12/2011

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