Engineering Skills and Demand: No More Time for the Blame Game

For the past 10 years the Institution of Engineering Education (IET) has been compiling and publishing an annual survey on the skills and demand for engineers by industries in the United Kingdom. This year’s survey makes particularly depressing reading for the Engineering Education sector, particularly those of us in higher education. According to the survey, the issues and concerns that have been raised by industry regarding the quality of engineering graduates have remained consistently the same over the entire decade. These issues include the lack of business acumen, and the lack of practical experience and leadership and management skills. In short, year in, year out, engineering graduates are demonstrating an appalling lack of the “soft” and “work ready” skills necessary for them to take on productive roles in industry.

Over 50% of the surveyed employers say that engineering recruits fall short of the expected standard. Two thirds say that this now constitutes a threat to the viability of their businesses.  More damning, however, employers think that that current engineering graduates lack the sense of autonomy and responsibility needed in business, something which is generally viewed as a basic outcome of a well-rounded university education.  In addition, two thirds of the surveyed employers also feel that the UK education system, as it is currently constituted, is not able to deliver the skills required for technological change. More ominously, industry strongly feels that most of our undergraduate engineering programmes are out of date, and a large chunk of our programmes seriously lack the required technical depth. By and large, industry feels that our programmes are failing to develop the practical skills they need. In short, ten years of surveys, and ten years of recommendations, and what do our undergraduate engineering programmes get: A huge indictment – Not Fit for Purpose.

Most of us in higher education may feel that this is industry doing what it is best known for – putting the blame for everything relating to education and training on higher education. On the side of industry, ominous dark whispers are now making the rounds: is university education necessary for the development of industry? Some are even thinking of going it alone, citing the likes of famous university dropouts like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs who went on to build  Microsoft and Apple respectively.

Of course, this is neatly forgetting that the outcomes of these two geniuses would have come to nothing without the culture of cooperation and cross-fertilisation that exists between universities and the technology industry in the United States. Which brings me to the point I want to make: What does the consistent failure of UK engineering higher education in the eyes of industry, and the attendant blame game actually mean? Simply this, there is a shocking lack of cooperation between higher education and industry when it comes to engineering education. Granted, there is some cooperation between a few academics and individuals in industry, but this is not a collaboration dictated by strategic concerns on the part of both universities and industry. It is opportunistic, and lacks the necessary policy and infrastructural support to make any lasting impact.  And the losers are the universities, industry itself, and the unfortunate undergraduate students, and, as a consequence, the entire UK economy.

Am I laying it a bit too thick? I don’t think so, and even the Commission on Adult Vocational Teaching and Learning (CAVTL)  has come to the same conclusion – it is time industry and the education and training providers  collaborated in delivering vocational education. The CAVTL was set up in 2012 with a remit to identify ways to improve vocational education and training in the UK. In its report, the CAVTL recommends that “vocational teaching must be characterised by a clear line of sight to work, and the VET system should operate as a two-way street (their emphasis).

By  “a clear line of sight to work”, the CAVTL means that learners must be able to see “why they are learning what they are learning, understand what the development of occupational expertise is all about, and experience the job in context” (CAVTL 2013, pp. 7). To achieve this there must be genuine collaboration between industry and training and education providers (CAVTL 2013, pp. 7).  And, according to the CAVTL report, this can only happen if employers stop being just customers of vocational teaching and training, but move up and become actively engaged at every level in the creation and delivery of vocational programmes.

So what can we learn from the ten years of surveys on the engineering skills and demand for engineers by UK industry. Simply this, it’s no longer time to play the blame game. Instead, it’s now time for engineering schools and industry to work collabatively in the development and delivery of up to date, high quality, excellent engineering undergraduate programmes. And who knows, Silicon Valley, Shanghai, the Ruhr Region, and Tokyo will soon be knocking on our doorsteps.

References

The Institution of Engineering Technology (IET). (2015). Skills and Demand in Industry – 2015 Survey. Retrieved from the IET Website: http://www.theiet.org/factfiles/education/skills2015-page.cfm

The Commission on Adult Vocational Teaching and Learning (CAVTL). (2013). It’s about work…Excellent adult vocational teaching and learning: the summary report of the Commission on Adult Vocational Teaching and Learning. Retrieved from Excellence Gateway Website: http://www.excellencegateway.org.uk/content/eg5937#sthash.r8GaHa9l.dpuf

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