Wanted: Tomorrow’s engineers

6 min read

The decline in the number of students enrolling on engineering courses has been charted for some years now. A range of reasons has been put forward, but the bottom line is that the UK hasn't been producing enough engineers.

A report from EngineeringUK published at the end of 2012 said the UK only produces 46,000 engineering graduates each year, even though it believed there was demand for around 69,000. The situation is worse when it comes to electronics. At the turn of the Millennium, more than 8000 students were reading electronics engineering and related subjects at UK universities. Today, that figure has been almost halved. A range of organisations have programmes designed to attract school students to a career in engineering, while some companies have decided to get on with it themselves. Are these efforts beginning to turn the tide? Figures issued recently by UCAS, the body which coordinates university applications, suggest this might be the case, even if numbers are changing slowly. According to UCAS, 27,155 students were accepted into engineering courses in 2013 – an increase of almost 2000 over 2012 and 3500 more than 2008. The 2013 engineering intake represents 5.5% of all students entering universities. Of these, 4845 students have enrolled on electronic and electrical engineering (E&E) courses, an increase of 200 over 2012. However, 4810 people entered university to read E&E in 2008, so the numbers have remained somewhat static. One thing which those promoting engineering as a career believe may be working in their favour is the increase in tuition fees to £9000 per year. Because of the increase, potential students are looking more closely at their options, possibly selecting vocational courses because they offer better employment prospects at the end of their studies. Organisations working to raise the profile of engineering generally have two groups to address; pre and post 16. Those in the former group may not yet be aware of engineering and its role; those in the latter group are aware of engineering, but may need help to narrow their focus. Whatever the approach, there is the opportunity for your company to get involved, no matter what its size. The UK Electronics Skills Foundation (UKESF, www.ukesf.org) has been working for the last couple of years to address the threat to the industry of declining skills by looking to secure a sustainable supply of 'industry prepared' graduates. Dr Wendy Daniell, UKESF programme director, said working with the pre 16 group is 'absolutely critical' because of the big demand for graduates. "Our goal here is getting them to think about selecting the right subjects so they are specialising in the right areas. Having said that, we want them to keep their options open. It's about raising awareness and changing attitudes to engineering; we want them to see the relevance of what they're studying." UKESF's pre 16 efforts are focused on the Go4SET initiative developed by the Engineering Development Trust (EDT), which says it is the largest provider of STEM activities for UK youth. Go4SET links teams of six pupils aged 12 or 13 with companies and universities to offer a 10 week STEM experience. In 2012/13, 2500 students participated in Go4SET through 36 'hubs' around the UK. Of these, 56% were girls. Surveyed after the events, 65% of participants said they were more likely to choose STEM subjects in school. UKESF piloted a Go4SET event in 2012/13 and ran it again in 2013/14. This year's challenge was launched on 19 November 2013 and the final will take place on 19 March 2014 at the University of Bristol. Eight teams are taking part, each accompanied by a teacher and a mentor from a sponsoring company. This year's sponsors are CSR, Dialog Semiconductor, Imagination Technologies, Intel, RS Components and the University of Bristol. Now, UKESF has launched an event based in the East of England. Eight teams are competing, with the final on 31 March 2014 at the University of Cambridge. Sponsors for this event are: CSR, Imagination, Selex ES, Plextex and Plastic Logic. "We're hoping to set up an event in Scotland next year," said Dr Daniell. UKESF has developed specific electronics projects with Go4SET. "Once the portfolio has been posted," she continued, "local companies can pick up and run with schools. Students can also select projects to suit their interests. Most sponsors want to get students excited about electronics and to encourage research. It's open ended engagement." When asked to describe an engineer before working on an electronics project, the students' top three offerings were 'logical', 'solves problems' and 'clever'. Having worked on the project, the perceptions changed to 'creative', 'clever' and 'solves problems'. UKESF is offering scholarships to those who are already committed to studying electronics at partner universities. Successful candidates are matched with sponsoring companies and can receive annual bursaries of up to £1615, paid summer placements, industrial mentoring and professional development at Summer Workshops. Is this 'preaching to the converted'? Dr Daniell responded: "They might be taking a degree, but might not have decided whether to join the industry. Scholarships give companies the opportunity to sell the industry and themselves." Meanwhile, Dr Daniell says the Go4SET scheme needs to grow so a wider audience can be reached. "Companies need to get involved with their local schools via Go4SET," she said. "We need to increase the interest in electronics and the number of people studying it." Estelle Rowe, national director of the Headstart programme for EDT (www.etrust.org), said the scheme has been running for 16 years, targeting Year 12 students (16 and 17 year olds). "Teams of four work on a real project set by an engineering company," she explained. "They spend several days at a university, using its facilities to make progress." Headstart courses are designed to let these students find out more about the career opportunities a degree course might lead to. Broad based courses give a flavour of different aspects of engineering, while focus courses provide an insight into more specialised fields. "The programme has grown to the point where 2000 youngsters are attending 51 courses at 35 universities this year," Rowe pointed out. "And we received about 3000 applications. But the focus is on getting them to think about going to university." She also believes the rise in tuition fees has played a part. "They are investing in these schemes to make sure it's the right choice for them and I think it will become more important. It allows students to look at subjects and institutions and the timing of the events is deliberate; just before they fill in their UCAS forms." Headstart recruits students from schools around the country and allocates them to a particular university. "But every course has sessions where engineers talk about their experiences; what worked for them and what didn't," Rowe noted. "And there are industrial visits." UKESF works with Headstart to address electronics. "Rather than it reinventing the wheel," Rowe observed. The UKESF version of Headstart is an electronics summer school, taking place this year at the University of Southampton from 7 to 11 July. Dr Daniell expects 80 people to attend, twice the number at the first school in 2011. Rowe says EDT now has universities approaching it, asking to run Headstart courses. "We're trying to look at courses which address recruitment issues," she added. According to Rowe, the approaches are working. "As we move up the age range, we get a good conversion rate and progression into the next level of STEM education. Go4SET, for example, can feed into a number of things. Hopefully, they will take part in other programmes. "I think we are making a positive impact," she asserted. "We're not Government funded, so the fact that EDT has been in existence for more than 30 years means we're delivering what companies want." She is also encouraged by the fact this issue has now reached the Government's agenda. "But there's still a lot of work to do. We should be working at the primary level, for example, but it's difficult to get funding to work with that age range. "Somehow, the system has taken the excitement out of STEM and we need to put it back. At that age, children want to know how things work." One company which has decided to 'do its own thing' is CAD tools vendor Premier EDA Solutions. Managing director Phil Mayo is forthright about the current state of affairs. "A Level physics isn't a decent grounding for electronics; it won't equip you with the insight into hardware and software; the exciting stuff. "The subject doesn't introduce students to the electronics industry and there is little or no careers advice that recognises the electronics industry and the industry itself is pretty much invisible. Why should anyone consider a career in electronics when they can't 'see' the industry?" Mayo said Premier EDA became involved through conversations with its customers. "We talk to customers about inefficiencies," he said. "We can't sell to them unless we bring an advantage. In most cases over the last 10 years, it was clear that skills shortages were affecting companies." Premier EDA is now working with three local schools. "One is probably the only school in Hertfordshire teaching a BTech in electronics; another is a specialist humanities school, but the latest is a private school," he said. According to Mayo, this latest addition boasts two members of staff dedicated to career development and to raising awareness of careers that don't match the subjects taught at the school. What is Mayo's advice to small companies wanting to work with local schools? "Get in there and meet them. But you can also pick up on existing schemes. Headstart will cost about £250 per student, which is not a major investment." Mayo says it's unlikely any school will turn you away. "But your approach may not fit or there may be time issues. Headstart works well because it's out of term time and there's a choice of courses and locations." You can also get involved with Year 10 work experience. "There's a standard week available and you only need to do a little health and safety work. Or you can do what we have done – create a bespoke two week experience. One week is at the end of the school term, the other is in their own time." Premier EDA has developed a series of reusable modules that exposes students to the electronics world. Alongside exploring screen based and 'real world' design, participants this year will get to tour a local PCB fabricator. "Our efforts have always paid good dividends," Mayo reflected. "We made a decision to invest in young people and the more you put in, the more you get out. And, given the right environment," he concluded, "these kids will shine. But we have to get them interested." * For more about how Premier EDA works with local schools, contact Phil Mayo at phil@eda.co.uk.