It’s all been said before, but here is my version. A number of my statements will be massively generalised but they are made to trigger further debate and discussion.
Numerous reports over many decades have focused on the ineffective state of education and training and our track-record in this area compared with our competitors. The majority of these reports focused on particular sectors of education and training e.g. secondary, further and higher education. Very few, as the main history of technical education showed, embraced the whole of the education and training spectrum. It is important on the grounds of continuity and progression that all stages are considered as part of a continuum. Too often a particular priority is given to one stage of education without careful thought of its consequences on the other stages. Lifelong learning in order to be successful must provide continuity and ease of progression for all people at whatever stage they are. Very often some of the excellent findings and recommendation of these reports were seldom recognised or implemented and the reports gathered dust on the shelves.
What this country has consistently failed to achieve since the Great Exhibition (1851) is to produce a range of suitably qualified people in sufficient numbers to work in teams with the productive and original thinking individuals and researchers. The roots of the problem may be cultural. The culture, in England particularly, is a basic hostility to science and technology and we imagine that success in life as measured by employment in other professions such as financial services, law and medicine. With respect to the people in these professions they do not actually contribute much to the manufacturing base of this country. Wealth generated by such can never fully compensate for a strong and efficient manufacturing base. Just look at the current problems caused by the recession and the highly questionable practices operated by the financial services particularly in the US and UK. (The financial services could be perceived as witchcraft and financial terrorism conducted in pin stripes!) To add insult to injury it is just these services that make money during recessions and depressions. Armies of accountants, auditors, consultants and lawyers make substantial profits from companies going into liquidation as the manufacturing base of this country further crumbles.
The educational system also contributes to this barren perception of science and technology. The system seems to equate quality with rarity and, as has been said before, the educational system is a catalogue of acculative failure. Any educational and training system must surely equate quality with fitness of purpose for all. Most people, given the right set of opportunities, can benefit from programmes of education and training at all stages of their life and then can play a more meaningful part in society and employment.
The ever- accelerating knowledge and skill base currently makes the situation even worse. It is now reckoned that the knowledge half life of an electrical engineer is less than four years and in some areas of IT less than six months. This means that there is a desperate need for lifelong learning and continuous professional development (CPD) for people in work. Successive governments have set targets for education and training attainment but enviably these have failed to be realised.
The country must break with the low- skill equilibrium and adopt once for all a high-skill, high-quality philosophy in the workplace. The current recession coupled with the severe austerity regimes being introduced by the consolation government in the UK will, I fear, perpetuate the low- skill and low-quality economy and employment profile.
In order to break away from its woefully inadequate track record, Britain needs to invest in people, both in the initial stage of education and training, but equally important, make a growing commitment to retraining, updating and up skilling already in work. People are the most valuable resource and it is important that a long-term view is taken of education and training, supporting people to cope with the information technology revolutions that are occurring. As has been said ‘it is not the robots which are the wonderful achievement, but the new and wide-ranging competence of our employees.’ Although many companies in the UK are striving to compete in the global economy the continuing skills gaps and shortages make it difficult for them to match the levels of productivity and work based qualifications of our main competitors. This fact is created by the inadequate state of technical education and training at all levels.
Engineering and Manufacturing
I would like now to focus on engineering and manufacturing, although many of the arguments bear similarities with other key subject areas e.g. the physical sciences and mathematics. Because this country still operates a largely elitist education system, much of the attention is still given to the production of graduates and those people who wish to progress on to chartered engineer status. What we have neglected is the training of technicians, operatives and craftspeople to support engineers, scientists and designers. This deficiency has been around since the Great Exhibition. For every researcher there needs to be four/five support staff, highly qualified and motivated. The area of technician and craft educational training has been woefully inadequate. Again, this might be associated with some cultural factor, that people often see these occupations/jobs as second rate.
Colleges, as the history of technical education shows, play a major role in improving the stock and flow of suitably qualified technicians and craft people. They have never been given adequate resources to achieve the required results within an operational framework based on a long-term strategy. Successive recessions have witnessed dramatic cut-backs in training. The same thing is happening in the current recession where college’s budgets are being cut up to 25%. This is opposite to what happens in many other countries where they increase investment in training/retraining. This country never seems to learn from the lessons of history. If we come out of the current recession we will still be confronted with massive skills gaps and shortages in key areas. The 1980s witnessed a massive decline in traditional manufacturing industries, and it must be said that there were examples of low productivity, over-staffing and under investment in equipment, infrastructure, capital and modern management techniques. This destruction has now reached the critical threshold that we now manufacture very little and have outsourced many of our remaining industries abroad. The country needs an efficient and viable manufacturing base in order to promote wealth. Increased global competition makes it even more essential. The prevailing view in the current recession is that the economy can be rebalanced by moving ex-public service employees and what remains of the traditional manufacturing industries into new technologies and high value occupations sadly this will not happen without major investments in retraining and up skilling. We must be able to produce products and services that the rest of the world wants to purchase. There needs to be a sensible balance between the manufacturing and service based industries and they must complement each other. The two go together and one cannot have an undue emphasis over the other – at present Britain has got the balance wrong! If we are to develop a regenerated and rebalanced manufacturing base we need to address some very fundamental issues associated with education and training.
When looks at the way companies are evolving internationally, many are down-sizing and becoming flatter and developing total quality management systems around small teams of highly qualified people. Each person within the team has a particular role and sense of the others knowledge and skill. The analogy is often used of ‘the surgeon team’ a small group of highly qualified people who can design products and services and solve problems. In addition a high level of automation must critically match the skills of the team members. There should no longer be issues of demarcation and over-staffing. There is a synergy between team members and also the teams that constitute the organisation. This culture could overcome the ongoing difficulty of attracting women into certain occupations, particularly engineering, as women are proven team workers.
The Engineering Team
This brings me to the concept of the engineering teams, to date; most emphasis has been placed on the graduate and chartered engineer. The engineering team comprises multi-skilled craftspeople, technicians, incorporated engineers and chartered engineers. In order to maximise the effectiveness and efficiency of the team, the education and training of all the members is important. Colleges must continue to develop innovative partnerships with employers and maximise wherever possible work based training through work experience, work placements etc. Colleges must also continue to establish new delivery and study methods that are more acceptable, both in terms of convenience and cost effectiveness to both parties. Apprenticeships must be further extended and their quality improved. In order to produce a more versatile engineer the E model of education and training should be adopted. The E model represents an ongoing and sensible mix of breath, balance and depth (specialisation) in the curriculum experience as opposed to the existing T model with too much early depth (specialisation). Students need to appreciate and experience first-hand the realities of engineering and manufacturing right from the beginning of their studies. This clearly requires stronger ongoing links between college study and the workplace – this reinforces the need and importance for work placement/shadowing/experience and the more formal apprenticeship programmes which are mainly work based. Opportunities for progression of the members of the engineering team must also be facilitated by the curriculum frameworks. The current qualifications framework still presents barriers to progression. The various qualifications, in spite of successive reforms, still cause difficulties for smooth progression. Greater recognition of team members experience and particular skills needs to be given by way of more enlightened use of assessment of prior achievement and learning, professional dairies and portfolios. People with CGLI qualifications still find it difficult to progress easily onto engineering technician, incorporate engineer or chartered engineering status. Similar difficulties still exist for other members wishing to progress to the next stage. The current education and training reforms will hopefully begin to resolve these long standing problems with progression and transfer. When one looks at the current qualifications and possible career routes for engineers it is reminiscent of the vessels on a gnat’s leg. It looks complex and confusing and in many cases does not offer smooth progression. One of the problems causing this confusion is still the multitude of professional bodies that represent engineering and manufacturing and the various members of the team. These bodies still seem to desire to maintain a great degree of autonomy and as a result are very protective of their territorial domains. As the world of work moves to multi-skilling and cross-skilling, it is surely important that a number of these associations and professional bodies merge and create a more unified structure to represent and support engineering and manufacturing. These professional have a long and creditable history (see biographies and pen portraits) but the time is right to reform and rationalise in order to improve the image of the disciplines. In order to create the engineering team all the interested parties must work together to eliminate unnecessary barriers that will establish an educational and training system that recognises the value of each team member and promotes a positive image of engineering and manufacturing. Once a highly qualified and motivated culture is created perhaps the country can re-establish and rebalance its economy. The country has relied on financial services, real estate and property and a disproportionately sized public services for too long and that imbalance has now to be addressed and resolved.