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Round table | The will for skills

Educators and contractors discussed the lack of good careers advice in schools, an inflexible educational system and the branding of vocational qualifications.

The skills gap and how to address a lack of engineers coming into the profession were the principle topics on the agenda when NCE convened a round table discussion in association with contractor Bam Nuttall in June.

Leading educators, contractors and campaigners came together to discuss the changes that must be made to the UK’s education system and what the construction industry can do to help. Here NCE outlines nine key points from the event.

Wage inflation clearly indicates a skills crisis

Before discussing the skills gap, those at the round table tried to establish whether it was really as bad as people think. Bam Nuttall chief executive Steve Fox was adamant that the problem is real.

“The workforce is very clearly largely made up of transient European Union labour, and we do not have people out of work from the UK, so it is clear that we have insufficient workforce coming out of our schools. With regards to engineering and management we are seeing significant pressure on wages which is a clear indication of skills or people shortages.”

skills round table

Preliminary discussion: Steve Fox, Blane Judd and Paul Greening before the debate kicked off

Rail sector’s diversity figures are ‘pathetic’

National Skills Academy for Rail Engineering chief executive Gil Howarth is currently in the process of building a new training academy for railway engineers. He agreed that using transient labour was not a long-term solution for project delivery. But he was equally concerned by the lack of highly skilled staff and women in the rail sector. “Only 17% of people are Level 4 (HNC) and above, which is very worrying. We have 10,000 transient workers, or self employed by any other name, with little investment in them and we’ve got only 3.6% female [workers], which is pathetic.”

Round table team

  • Mark Hansford, editor, NCE
  • Cristina Lanz-Azcarate, London and South East chair, NAWIC UK & Ireland and director Atelier Eura
  • Patrick Craven, director of assessment, policy, research and compliance, City & Guilds
  • Steve Fox, chief executive, Bam Nutall
  • Dr Paul Greening, centre director, engineering, UCL
  • Gil Howarth, chief executive, National Skills Academy for Rail Engineering
  • Blane Judd, chief executive, EngTechNow
  • Nigel Leigh, principal, Stephenson College
  • Alasdair Reisner, chief executive, Civil Engineering Contractors Association
  • Dana Skelley, director, asset management, Transport for London
  • Alexandra Wynne, deputy editor, NCE

A more flexible education system might encourage more people to become engineers

City & Guilds director of assessment, policy, research and compliance Patrick Craven said: “Rightly or wrongly people get on to a track that becomes difficult to move from. Already City & Guilds is starting to work quite extensively to develop programmes that we see as more flexible.”

He also felt that the branding career paths was important for prospective recruits. “Historically the comparison between vocational and professional is very difficult while you still use the term ‘vocational’. I think if you start to use the term ‘professional’ more widely, that becomes a more equitable conversation,” he said.

skills round table

Fox, Judd and Greening: Improving routes to construction careers

Conversion courses can allow the sector to mine other talent pools

University College (UCL) London engineering centre director Dr Paul Greening said conversion courses are one way of delivering career flexibility.

“We provide a conversion course so students who’ve done a maths, physics, or even a geography or economics degree could spend two years and come out with a degree that could lead them to becoming a chartered [engineer],” he said.

He said he hoped construction was moving towards a “21st century” version of education where UCL students could happily rub shoulders with those taking a vocational route into the profession. He said this was something he wanted to work with City & Guilds to pioneer.

Young people need to consider engineering technician positions as a professional option

EngTechNow chief executive Blane Judd argued that the industry should celebrate its technicians in the same way that it celebrates its graduate engineers.

“If we don’t invest in getting people to understand that when we talk about professional engineers, we also mean those who went through an apprenticeship, what we will end up with is a perception that the only way
you become a professional engineer is by going to university,” he said.

“Very often schools don’t have careers advice resources and therefore they can’t advise pupils about where they could be looking”

Cristina Lanz-Azcarate, Atelier Eura

He added that the industry was paying the price for cutting apprenticeship schemes during the economic crisis.

“During the last two recessions, employers cut back naturally on their head count and reduced their recruitment. While many employers are now taking on circa 250 apprentices, many only have numbers around their twenties graduating from recruitment from three or four years ago.”

Parental perceptions about apprenticeships can be harmful

Transport for London (TfL) director of asset management Dana Skelley set up the organisation’s first apprenticeship training programme, having noticed that there was too much of a focus on graduate training programmes.

She thought there was a stigma attached to apprenticeships, particularly where parents were concerned.

skills round table

Skelley: Ambitious parents can deter girls from doing apprenticeships rather than degrees

“I was a judge on the Young Female Apprentice of the Year Awards and one of the candidates shared with us the fact that the most difficult challenge for her was nothing to do with the engineering, the company she worked for, or being surrounded by men,” she said.

“Her [problem] was persuading her parents that an apprenticeship was the right thing to do because they were embarrassed that she wasn’t going to university.”

Careers advice in schools is limited

Cristina Lanz-Azcarate is a director of architectural firm Atelier Eura and London and South East chair, for the National Association of Women in Construction, UK & Ireland. She said schools were failing pupils and female pupils in particular, by providing limited careers advice.

“Rightly or wrongly people get on to a track that becomes difficult to move from”

Patrick Craven, City & Guilds

“We have been doing some work with the Young Women’s Trust and they published a report last year titled Totally Wasted’, she said.

“Very often schools don’t have careers advice resources and therefore they can’t advise pupils about where they could be looking at when applying, or even what careers could be in line with their skills. As such they just tend to fall into careers by default that are already saturated.”

Employer/educator partnerships offer a way forward

Nigel Leigh, is principal of Stephenson College. He has worked closely with Bam Nutall to produce engineers that are academically and part-professionally qualified. He said that relationships between employers and training providers must be strengthened.

If this were done, “[employers] would work with the providers of their potential new human resources, whether they’re universities, schools or colleges, as accredited partners of these institutions.

They would see that part of the job of being a civil engineer is also being a trainer of the next generation,” he said. “That requires a resource commitment from employers as a part of this resolution.
I’m not saying it is the sole solution but it is a contributory factor to solving this problem,” he added.

Employer/educator partnerships could cut student fees

skills round table

Reisner: Slash student fees

Responding to Leigh’s call to employers, Civil Engineering Contractors association chief executive Alasdair Reisner mischievously suggested employer/educator partnerships could slash student fees on engineering courses.

“That would presumably lower the cost base for the educational establishment and therefore that would create some money. And if you were able to give that money back to the student as an incentive to do that course, I think that could be a bit of a game changer.”


Produced in association with

Bam Nuttal logo 2015


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