The Engineering Team

Dick Evans discusses the importance of colleges of further and higher education in maintaining the quality of the UK’s engineering workforce.

It’s all been said before, but here is my version. Many of my statements will be massively generalised and simplistic but they are made to provoke debate and discussion.

Numerous reports over many decades have attempted to tackle the ineffective state of education and training and our track-record in this area compared with our major competitors. The majority of these reports focus on particular stages of education and training, e.g. secondary, technical and higher education. Very few attempted to embrace the whole education and training spectrum. It is important on the grounds of continuity and progression that all stages are considered as part of a continuum. Too often a particular priority is given to one stage without careful thought of its consequences on the other stages. Life-long education and training, in order to be successful, must provide continuity and ease of progression for all people at whatever stage they are. Sadly, all the excellent work by members of these committees and their subsequent recommendations were seldom recognised or implemented.

It is probably true that this country has more Nobel Prize winners per hectare than any other country but where has it got us? What we have consistently failed to achieve since the Great Exhibition is to produce a range of suitably qualified people in sufficient numbers to work in teams with the productive and original individual and researcher. The roots of the problem may be cultural. The culture, in England particularly, is hostile to science and technology and we image that success in life is measured by being employed in other professions such as finance, banking and law. With respect to the people in these professions they do not actually contribute much to the manufacturing base of this country. Wealth generated generated by such services can never fully compensate for a strong and efficient manufacturing base. Ironically, these service professions seem to do well even during recessions. Armies of consultants, accountants and lawyers make substantial profits from companies going into liquidation as the manufacturing base of this country further crumbles.

The educational system also contributes to this barren perception of science and technology. The system seems to equate ‘quality with rarity’ and, as has been said before, the educational system is a catalogue of accumulative failure. Any educational and training system must surely equate quality with fitness for purpose for all. Most people, given the right set of opportunities, can benefit from programmes of education and training at all stages of their life and then can play a more meaningful part in society and employment.

The ever-accelerating knowledge and skill base currently makes the situation even worse. It is now said that the knowledge half-life of an electrical engineer is four years and this is decreasing. Many other subjects in science and technology are following this trend. This means that there is a desperate need for continual life-long learning and training. The Government has set National Targets for Education and Training (NTETs) and even though these look somewhat ambitious they are well below our major competitors. Some of the targets set for the year 2000 are already below those that are achieved in many other countries, particularly those in the Pacific basin and the nations of East Asia.

The country must break with the low-skill equilibrium and adopt a high-skill, high productivity, high-quality philosophy in the workplace.

In order to break away from its woefully inadequate track record, Britain needs to invest in people, both in the initial stage of education and training, but equally important, make a growing commitment to retraining, updating and upskilling. People are the most valuable resource and it is important that a long-term view is taken of education and training, supporting people to cope with the information technology revolutions that are occurring. Interesting to note a quotation from Peter Meyer Bohm of Volkswagen: ‘It is not the robots which are the wonderful achievement, but the new and wide-ranging competence of our employees’. Although many companies in the UK are beginning to develop strategies to develop world-class management in terms of total quality management, production and training, they are still sadly in the minority. Our levels of productivity and qualifications of the workforce are still way below that of our major competitors.

Engineering

I would like now to focus on engineering and technology, although many of the arguments bear similarities with other key subject areas, e.g. science. Because this country still operates a largely élitist education system, much of the attention is given to the production of graduates and those people who wish to progress on to chartered status. What we have neglected is the training of technicians and craft-people to support engineers and the scientists. This deficiency has been around since the Great Exhibition. For every researcher there needs to be four or five support staff, highly qualified and highly motivated. The area of technician and craft educational training has been woefully inadequate. Again, this might be associated with some cultural factor, that people see these jobs as second rate.

Colleges of Further Education (CFEs) tend to play a major role in improving the stock and flow of suitably qualified technicians and craft-people. They have never been given the resources to achieve the required results within an operational framework for long-term strategy. Successive recessions have witnessed dramatic cut-backs in training. The recent statistics for enrolments from the Further Education Funding Council again indicate a massive decline in day-release provision. Many other countries, when in recession, invest more in training their workforce. This country never seems to learn lessons. If we ever come out of the recession we will still be confronted with massive skill shortage in key areas. The 1980s witnessed a massive decline in the manufacturing base of this country, and there were examples of low productivity, over-staffing and under investment in equipment, capital and modern management technique. This destruction is now reaching such proportions that we are fast reaching the critical threshold. The country needs an efficient and viable manufacturing base in order to promote wealth. Increased global competition makes this even more essential. We must be able to provide products and services that the rest of the world want to purchase. I accept that the manufacturing base needs to complement the service industries such as finance. The two go together and one cannot have an undue emphasis over the other. If we are to develop a regenerated manufacturing base we need to address fundamental issues such as training.The country needs urgently to rebalance its economy otherwise major problems will occur in the future!

When one looks at the way companies are evolving internationally, many are down-sizing and becoming flatter and are developing total quality management systems based around small teams of highly qualified people. Each person within the team has a particular role and sense of the others’ knowledge and skill. The analysis is often used of ‘the surgeon team’ – a small group of highly qualified people who can design products and solve problems. A high level of automation is critically matched by the skills of the team members. There are no longer issues of demarcation and over-staffing. There is synergy between team members and also between the teams that constitute the organization. This culture could overcome the ongoing difficulty of attracting women into certain disciplines, particularly engineering, as women are proven team workers.

This brings me to the concept of the engineering team as, to date, most emphasis has been placed upon the education and training of the graduate and chartered engineer. The engineering team comprises multi-skilled craftspeople, engineering technicians, incorporated engineers and chartered engineers. In order to maximize the efficiency of the team, the education and training of all its members is important. Colleges of Further Education have a major role to play here. The new FE sector will be the major deliverer of post-16 education and training. Many colleges are very committed to vocation-alism and work-related provision. Developing frameworks for the National Vocational Qualifications and the General National Vocational Qualifications promises much to assist developing a more highly qualified workforce. Even though recently there has been much criticism about these frameworks, they do offer, for the first time, a unified framework, spanning a wide range of levels from foundation to postgraduate awards. Even though day-release enrolments have decreased, colleges continue to provide a service to employers. However, increasingly it will be a very different kind of service, delivered on the site for the company. The NVQ framework does allow provision to be tailor-made to the needs of the employer and, where necessary, the underpinning knowledge and understanding developed. New kinds of working partnerships need to be developed between colleges and the employers. No doubt the traditional day-release and evening provision will further decrease. As companies downsize and become slimmer the costs associated with pricing such provision will become significant. It is therefore important that colleges work up delivery and study methods that are more acceptable, both in terms of convenience and cost to the employer. The NVQ and GNVQ frameworks most certainly will allow this to develop, but the practice of the past must change. Many colleges of FE and HE offer provision and awards spanning craft to professional and are developing more effective working partnerships with employers in which new methods of study are evolving. Other partners like the TEC and LEC assist this relationship and this is most certainly true with the modern apprenticeship initiative. In order to produce a more versatile engineer the E model of education and training should be adopted. The ‘E’ represents an ongoing and sensible mix of breadth, balance and depth (i.e.specialization) in the curriculum experience as opposed to the existing ‘T’ model with too much early depth (i.e.specialization). Students need to appreciate and experience first-hand the realities of the engineering company right from the beginning of their studies. This will require a greater ongoing link between college study and the workplace – another requirement of the NVQ framework. With these improvements the various members of the engineering team should be able to work more effectively together. Opportunities for career progression of the members of the engineering team should be more easily available.

The current qualifications still present barriers to progression. The various qualifications available to the engineering team members still cause difficulties for smooth and effective progression even though the NVQ framework technically allows this by way of its levels structure, problems still exist. Greater recognition of team members’ experience needs to be given by way of effective systematic use of assessment of achievement and learning. In order for this to be achieved, colleges, awarding bodies, the National Council for Vocational Qualifications and the various professional bodies representing engineering, need to develop a comprehensive policy. Crafts-people with City and Guilds awards still do not find it easy to progress on to engineering technician, incorporate engineer or chartered engineering status. Similar difficulties still exist for other members wishing to progress to the next stage. Much more work needs to be done by the key players in terms of recognition and subsequent progression. When one looks at the current qualifications and career routes for engineers it is reminiscent of the vessels of a gnat’s leg. It looks confused and in many cases does not offer opportunities of smooth progression. One of the problems causing this confusion is still the multitude of professional bodies that represent engineering and the various elements of the engineering team. There still seems to be a desire for them to maintain autonomy and they are very protective of their territorial domains. As the world of work moves to multi-skilling and cross-skilling, it is surely important that many of these associations and professional bodies merge and make a more unified framework for engineering. Many of these bodies accredit qualifications, and colleges and universities have to seek approval from these for each qualification. Each has its own criteria for accreditation and validation which takes an immense amount of resources, both physical and human, to seek and obtain.

I had the honour of serving on a study group with Monty Finniston on Technology Education some years ago and he and I used to talk a great deal about the need to embrace the concept of the engineering team. His committee of enquiry into engineering achieved a great deal with the creation of the Engineering Council. It considered at great depth the role of the professional engineer. What has not happened since that report is due consideration of all the developments of the engineering team. With all the changes that are now occurring globally as well as more specific issues associated in England, the time is’ now long overdue. We owe it to the country to re-establish a manufacturing base operated by highly qualified and motivated engineers, i.e. all the members of the engineering team.

Dr Dick Evans is Principal of Stockport College of Further and Higher Education.

(The country did not rebalance its economy and we witnessed to consequences of that in 2008 with the financial crisis AND STILL the country worships and protects the finacial services and the city! The banksters are protected and the manufacturing base is still viewed as secondary.) Footnote added in 2015.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email