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Learning on the job is a vital educational aid

David Tattersall

We mustn’t allow the recession to restrict work experience opportunities.

We all know that a professional engineering qualification in the UK requires both an educational base, usually a formal academic qualification, and experience in the profession. Both elements are essential but should they be seen as separate?

Over the lifetime of the Institution, learning on the job has been the traditional way with articled pupils or indentured apprentices progressing to become professional engineers. It is only relatively recently that the expansion of opportunities in higher education led to the concept of full-time education followed by the acquisition of competence through experience.

The ICE’s aim is to help people to reach the landmark of a professional qualification as quickly as possible.

Students can achieve the “appreciation” and “knowledge” levels of most of the Development Objectives through their academic courses but gaining some on the job experience allows students to achieve higher levels in some of the Objectives. This in turn means that they will be well on the way to their professional qualification - and be more-effective employees - by the time they start their first full-time job.

It is true too that employers when recruiting graduates tend to prefer an applicant who has had work experience.

Likewise there are significant benefits for students who have some experience in the field and are able to pick up engineering concepts and technical detail more easily as this often means they end up with a higher class degree.

And mentors of students on work placements are also beneficiaries; explaining something to someone is the best test there is of understanding.

As an industry we have always had a strong record in providing work experience placements, however construction and engineering firms have not escaped the impact of the recession and continued uncertainty means opportunities have diminished.

That said, there is a whole range of methods of providing work experience, from part-time degrees to vacation work, with thick and thin sandwich courses and gap years lying somewhere between. In addition, the value of providing placements for local schools for one or two weeks should not be underestimated as a means of attracting the brightest and best into the profession and of showcasing what we do to those who may decide it isn’t for them.

So, although times are hard we need to think of the long-term, as we are so often telling government. We learnt the hard way in the last recession the impact a hiatus in graduate recruitment can have, and I hope that we can have the same insight into work placements now. ICE is keen to work with employers and educational institutions to re-instate work experience as a common practise, and in return we hope that industry is also willing to look harder for opportunities for tomorrow’s engineers.

Delivering the major programme of infrastructure projects in coming years, as outlined only last week by the prime minister at ICE headquarters in London, depends on the UK engineering workforce being highly skilled and resourced. We need to act now to ensure this is the case.

  • David Tattersall is ICE Yorkshire and Humber regional director

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