24 July 2012

Safeguarding the UK's electronic systems community

The ESCO report, to be published later this year, will be a significant moment for the UK's diverse electronic systems community.

The report will highlight opportunities and challenges to the UK electronics sector; and one of the key threats the industry faces is not having available skills to meet demand and enable growth.

The report seeks to raise the profile of the electronics industry within Government and, more importantly, to establish a blueprint for the fragmented communities that will enable and support sustainable growth.

The UK has always had a strong track record for electronic systems innovation and consistently punches above its weight. An often quoted government figure says the UK leads Europe in electronic system design, generating £23billion per annum – 40% of the European market. The UK's electronics industry is also ranked in the top five globally, employs a 250,000 people and is widely recognised for its creativity and exploitation of university research.

While the industry is in urgent need of young talented individuals to take it forward, the number of UK university entrants for electronics engineering degrees fell year on year from 2002, sparking widespread concerns for the future.

In 2002, more than 5000 students enrolled onto British electronics courses. By September 2008, this figure had fallen to less than 2700, a drop of 47% (see fig 1).

In January 2010, trade association NMI, Sector Skills Council Semta and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills launched the UK Electronics Skills Foundation (UKESF) – a partnership between organisations, employers and universities designed to reverse the decline.

With initial backing from five companies – ARM, CSR, Dialog Semiconductor, Imagination Technologies and API Technologies (then C-MAC MicroTechnologies) – and five universities – Bristol, Edinburgh, Imperial, Southampton and Surrey – UKESF developed a programme to raise awareness of the application of electronic technologies among school aged students; support and promote careers to the most talented undergraduates, ensuring they stay after graduation; and better prepare them for the workplace, increasing employability and accelerating their productivity.

Scholarships and work placements

At the heart of UKESF is a series of industry funded scholarships, which provide students with financial support and summer industry placements with the sponsoring company. By 2015, UKESF aims to deliver 160 new scholarships per annum from 100 sponsoring firms and have students engaged from 10 universities.

Having already flagged the issue of future skills, industry leaders have been quick to support the UKESF programme; nine companies provided scholarships to 24 undergraduates in the 2010-2011 academic year.

Feedback from the first year has been overwhelmingly positive. CSR's VP of programme management, Nick Salter, said: "The professionalism, logical thinking and aptitude demonstrated by the scholars is comparable to what we would expect from a graduate with a few years of industry experience and they integrated into the teams remarkably well."

The programme has now been refined and developed through feedback. The number of sponsor companies has grown to 12 and the number of scholarships has doubled to 50. The addition of Cardiff, York and Manchester means there are now eight universities involved.

UKESF has also begun to make inroads with non traditional electronics companies, such as automotive manufacturers, that have an increased dependence on electronic systems for their products and need electronic engineering talent to succeed. UKESF announced earlier this year that Jaguar-Land Rover has joined the programme.

Workshops for scholars

The UKESF programme incorporates an annual skills workshop to give scholars a grounding in business and to complement their academic training. The first workshop took place in September 2011, with scholars attending a five day residential course at the University of Surrey.

High profile executives pledged their support to the programme, including ARM's ceo Warren East, Plastic Logic's ceo Indro Mukerjee and Imagination's vp of marketing Tony King-Smith. These busy execs made it a priority and found the time to meet with UKESF scholars and to make presentations on subjects related to the industry.

The 2012 workshop will take place at the University of Edinburgh in September.

The impact of university fee changes

In 2012, university fees rose to a maximum of £9000; UCAS data for 2012 enrolment suggests this has had an effect on applications, with 9.4% fewer students applying to university from England and Wales, where the fees were introduced.

The data also suggests students are thinking more seriously about their career paths when selecting a degree course, with medicine, law and engineering (as a whole) seeing little or no drop in numbers – so proportionally rising. Conversely, the number of students enrolling for degrees such as social studies and civil engineering have declined by 15% and 12% respectively over the last year. This presents an opportunity for the industry and employers to win both the hearts and minds of young and emergent talent.

Reaching out

One of the key parts of UKESF's promotion to pre university students is an annual, five day Summer School, run in collaboration with the education charity EDT's Headstart programme. Presentations are given by university and industry partners, with students visiting the UK's major research facilities and taking part in hands on design challenges such as creating robots and electronic choirs.

The first Summer School took place in July 2011 at Bristol and the feedback was overwhelmingly positive. The second took place in this month in Cardiff. Funding has now been raised to accommodate 80 students by 2014.

In 2012, regional competitions for 12 to 14 year old students have been introduced through a partnership between UKESF and EDT, using the latter's proven Go4SET programme.

The initial challenge takes place between schools in the South West region, with finals taking place in Bristol during 2013. The 10 week Go4SET project will demonstrate the relevance of science, technology, engineering and maths to careers in electronics and students will be helped to broaden their skills, develop analytical thinking and make informed decisions about study options relevant to the range of electronics careers open to them.

Upward trend

Since 2008, the numbers of UK students enrolling on electronic engineering degrees has begun to rise. Indeed, UCAS cited 3300 for 2011, up 23% (see fig 1).

We're moving in the right direction and, by working collaboratively through programmes like UKESF, the industry is amplifying its efforts. This is not enough however and more needs to be done if we are to capitalise and nurture future growth.

UKESF encourages organisations, of all sizes, who are dependent on electronic engineering skills to join the programme and to work collaboratively. Your industry needs you and together we can improve further on this 23% rise.

Author profile:
Wendy Daniell is the UKESF's project manager.

Wendy Daniell

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