WHENCE THE SKILLED TECHNICIAN?

On 23 April 1996 the Foundation held a lecture and dinner discussion under the title “Whence the Skilled Technician?” The Lord Butterworth CBE DL was in the chair and the evening was sponsored by the Engineering Council and the Engineering Training Authority. The speakers were Mr John Spensley, operations manager, Graseby’s pic, Mr Victor Lucas, senior inspector (Engineering), FEFC and Dr R.G. Evans, Principal, Stockport College of Further Education and Higher Education.

Summary of talk by Dr Evans who said there was still no long-term strategic framework for education and training in the country. The need for an urgent review was underlined by projections that employment in occupations related to science and technology would grow at a faster rate than other employment over the period 1991-2000. He put forward his own suggestions.

Introduction.

“The prizes will not go to the countries with the largest populations. Those with the best systems of education will win…”. “But if we are to make full use of what we are learning, we shall need many more scientists, engineers and technicians. I am determined that this shortage shall be made good.”

So said Anthony Eden on 18 January 1956. This statement joined many similar ones before and since about the concerns for the education and training of scientists, engineers and technicians. Couple these statements with innumerable reports and national commissions over the past 150 years which have focused on the problems associated with the education and training of craftspeople and technicians, particularly in the areas of science, technology and engineering, then one would have hoped to see evidence of improvement. In spite of all these laudable activities, the situation has not improved.

There is a long-standing deep and fundamental cultural hostility towards vocationalism and vocational awards in this country, particularly in England. The academic approach has always been given preference over the vocational. Intellectual skills were always more respected than the practical ones. Until recendy, the education system favoured the academic curriculum and the institutions themselves continually participated in the so-called ‘academic drift’. This historical cultural hostility has now to be linked with the more recent development following the wholesale destruction over the past two decades of the engineering and manufacturing base of this country. People now have an even more jaundiced view of these subjects, and most certainly possible employment opportunities in areas that have witnessed massive downsizing in key manufacturing companies. The people made redundant, particularly if they are parents, are very unlikely to encourage their children to be educated or trained to enter these areas of employment.

Need to regenerate the industrial base.

It is essential that this country does regenerate its manufacturing base. The future economic well-being depends critically on a balance of manufacturing and service-based activities. A sobering fact reinforces this need: “This country will have to increase service industries by ten per cent to compensate for every one per cent reduction in the manufacturing base”. However, it must be said that the manufacturing processes will be very different than in the past. The global economy will require us to develop and produce products and services that the rest of the world will wish to purchase. These products and services will need to possess significant value-addedness and this is where the quality of the workforce, particularly at craft and technician level is so important.

For every professional scientist or engineer there needs to be a supporting team of highly qualified craft and technical people to help research, develop, manufacture, sell and then maintain the products and services that we sell. Real opportunities do exist for this country to re-establish a manufacturing base. Numerous national and international reports have attempted to predict the future nature of employment. For example, the Institute for Employment Research (IER) have produced projections of occupational employment that include two occupational groups relevant to science and engineering. The latest projections over a period 1991 to 2000 are shown in the Table.

**Projections of occupational employment: 1991 to 2000 **

Occupational Group1991 (1000s)2000 (1000s)% increase
Science and Engineering Professions64279724.1%
Science and Engineering Associates56967718.6%
Whole economy25,38225,93522%

(Source IER).

The framework for training

Thus the IER expect that employment in occupations related to science and engineering will grow at a faster rate between 1991 and 2000 than employment in the whole economy. It is therefore essential that the curriculum offers pre- and post-16 aligns with these changes. One of the major factors re-shaping future work is the concern for the environment which puts science, in particular the biological and life sciences, centre stage. Employment opportunities for highly qualified/skilled people in professional, associate professional and technical occupations will increase. There will be a greater demand for:

  • technological skills, as new environmentally friendly technologies become more widespread;
  • knowledge-based skills as new environmental regulations are put into place;
  • entrepreneurial skills, as the need to achieve cost-effective increases in the face of these new regulations.

Therefore the favoured occupations will be:

  • scientists, engineers and technologists and their associates (i.e. technical and other business support staff);
  • specialists in reclamation/waste conservation and management;
  • multi-skilled technicians/craftspeople;
  • supervisory staff.

Unfortunately, the current political and financial climate does not help institutions committed to the education and training of craftspeople and technicians. There is still no long-term strategic framework for education and training in this country. Couple this with the operation of an open market and the increasing level of deregulation of the post-16 education and training system which will not, in the long term, have any major benefits or tackle some of these deep-seated problems.

It is interesting to note that many of our international competitors, who have more effective education/training systems, operate very highly regulated systems and these are coupled to long-term strategic planning frameworks for creating flexible, responsive and highly qualified individuals. In addition, these are congruent with economic and political policies that are so necessary to maintain a national and global competitive advantage. This country seems to be moving in the opposite direction to most of our competitors, particularly those that constitute the so-called Pacific basin economies. In his presidential address to The Royal Academy of Engineering, William Barlow commented on this country’s obsession with short termism by saying “… encourage people to think long-term instead of concentrating with myopic gaze on next year’s problem”.

Funding

The current funding regimes operated in the Further Education sector most certainly disadvantage institutions that wish to continue and enhance technical education and training. The funding regime is not sufficiendy sensitive or highly differentiated enough to recognize the additional costs of developing and delivering this provision. The delivery of vocational qualifications, whether they be occupationally specific or general require additional monies to cope with the teaching and learning methodologies that have to be introduced. There also needs to be a more realistic allocation for capital and equipment. It is also important to recognize within the funding methodology that fewer students enrol for science- and technology-related provision. The current funding regime is largely driven by student numbers.

One essential feature for the future is to develop stronger partnerships between colleges and employers, and this will require financial incentives to employers. Employers need to be encouraged to invest in life-long learning in order to develop a flexible and responsive workforce. The ever accelerating base of knowledge understanding and skills requires continuous professional development for all members of the workforce. Increasingly, many companies are configuring their workforces into teams and this will require a fundamental review of how the members of the team are educated and trained and kept up to date. It will also place greater importance on the role of small and medium enterprises.

At present, many employers, particularly in manufacturing and engineering, are struggling to deal with the recession and the consequences of increasing global competition. They need help from the government Whether this be by way of ‘tax incentives for employers’, a ‘modem training levy’ or a compulsory system of individual learning, accounts will need to be carefully considered.

Finally, on funding, the students themselves need support. Increasingly, they are finding it difficult to return to learning, particularly in the initial stages, because of changes in terms of grant and benefit support. The introduction of universal learning credits may assist to encourage people both young and adult to return to study.

A possible solution.

So, what is the possible solution in education and training of craftspeople and technicians for the future? Because of the ever accelerating change in knowledge, understanding and skill, it must now be accepted that the rate of change is far greater than the traditional response rate of education and training systems. There therefore needs to be a fundamental review of how this country operates its education and training systems. If this country is serious about upgrading its skill levels, it must be able to ‘access the reserves’ of well- educated/trained people whose ‘foundation learning’ will be started and often completed long before any accurate prediction can be made about the precise nature of their roles in the economy.

Therefore, there needs to be an initial phase which produces a strategic reserve of highly qualified people through ‘foundation learning’. In building up that ‘strategic reserve’, there is an essential need to increase the stock and flow of highly qualified craftspeople and technicians (in some respects even more important than increasing the graduate population).

If schools and colleges are supported financially, they can develop this strategic reserve of people. There then follows the second part of this very important equation, namely the development of a culture of life-long learning. This will allow people to keep up to date with new markets and technologies and remain flexible and responsive. The craftspeople and technicians are centre stage on this approach as they will play an increasingly important part in the wealth generation of this country. What is not in question is that they will need to be highly qualified, possessing an up-to-date skills/knowledge /understanding base. In addition, their roles will need to he redefined to fully recognize their importance.

[In the discussion after the presentations, Tamsyn Imison, Headteacher, Hampstead School, commented on the key issues for schools.]

Begin Pre-16 Post-16 is too late!

The lack of skilled mathematicians and crafts people — few of my technology teachers have a skills-based background. (This is not required for the national curriculum.) Some of my best teachers have an industrial/business background and a few are still running small businesses.

The heavy subject content of the curriculum which reduces our ability to manoeuvre in support of the needs of the student

Parity of esteem between vocational and academic courses — we are extremely good at processing more of ourselves — the academics, but not so good at setting young people off on more adventurous paths. This is a real pity when the vocational elements are so important.

The way forward.

A far better use of work experience with linked teacher placements in key employment centres so that students have good job descriptions and make the maximum use of their experiences at the time and later in their studies.

  • The use of industrial and business mentors linked through video conferencing.
  • The development of IT to provide up-to-date skills as well as offering opportunities for sharing skills and expertise through video conferencing.
  • Talent spotting through industrial residencies where marketable skills are shown off in schools and students encouraged to show aptitude.
  • Links with Youth Award Scheme to encourage greater participation in community works.

Reduction in content of curriculum but not breadth while opening up more scope for assessment and accreditation.

All students having progression facilitated and given the opportunities to show initiative and be rewarded for it.

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