Engineers and teachers are uncomfortable bedfellows, it seems.

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04 February 2015 by ATL
Question: Which two-word answer, according to the UK press, threatens the success of UK business, costs the engineering economy up to £27bn a year, is pushing pay up in the city and is delaying the building of new homes?

Answer? Skills shortages.

Whether you got that right or not (and I promise not to publish the results in any league tables) the point is to highlight just a few of the headlines published in just the last month on skills shortages in the economy.

In my own industry – civil engineering and infrastructure – barely a week passes by without another new report despairing the lack of individuals with STEM skills available for recruitment into vacancies.

It’s depressing to read isn’t it?

And it doesn’t get any better the more you read. Whilst graduates in engineering have the second highest mean salary within six months of starting, at £26,500, one in six STEM teachers think a career in engineering is undesirable for their students.

Despite a need for 182,000 people a year with engineering skills at level 3 plus (and only 108,000 entering these occupations) two out of every three careers advisers in schools offer no information on job prospects based on available work.

In fact, when I asked the graduates and apprentices working in our organisation if they’d ever had careers advice on engineering, the answer without exception was ‘no’.

Engineers and teachers are uncomfortable bedfellows, it seems.

Engineers want to see more young people with the right skills coming through the system. London, in particular, is experiencing a revitalisation in infrastructure projects. There are plenty of jobs available and too few young people able to take advantage of them.

Teachers, on the other hand, admit that they don’t feel confident giving careers advice on the sector.

I don’t think either group can bear full responsibility for where we are, but must share an equal load in getting us back on track.

And the ATL manifesto takes a big step forward in this respect. Indeed, the very first statement in the document highlights the urgency with which we need to equip young people with the skills to turn around the country’s economy.

The drive for qualifications that assess academic knowledge and its practical application is welcome. In my view, that must relate both to soft skills and the practical application of subject theory in the workplace.

So how might we achieve that? To be successful, we need to work together and play to each of our strengths to develop a system that meets young people’s needs and those of the wider economy too.

When it comes to the practical applications of knowledge industry can certainly help. Our Tunnelworks education resources and the 50 STEM Ambassadors on our project who spend time running practical activities in schools, both aim to link classroom learning with real world practice.

But when it comes to the softer skills, I admit that engineers aren’t particularly regarded for their excellence in communication and inter-personal skills.

Thankfully, the younger members of our team seem to agree that’s where schools and colleges really could add more value.  Specifically they said that a greater emphasis on developing the key building blocks for work such as communication, finance, teamwork, computer and presentation skills would have been invaluable.

We can also learn a lot from each other. For example, the ATL’s commitment to continuing professional development for teachers could benefit from increased partnership with business.

On the Thames Tideway Tunnel we’ve agreed to work with a local college to provide CPD opportunities to the FE tutors that educate our apprentices. Providing college tutors with experience in business and information about modern techniques in certain industries will benefit them and their students. But it also allows businesses to use teachers’ educational expertise to improve education programmes, tweak work experience activities and generate new ideas.

So whether it’s those of us in business, or those working in or running the education system, the case for change through collaboration seems clear.

Leaving the last word to our trainees, when asked if their experience of assessments had adequately prepared them for the world of work, they all agreed with the thrust of the ATL manifesto.

The consensus is best captured by Mohammed’s response. He said: “Assessments are based on how well you can memorise formulas and information…The real world doesn’t really expect you to remember formulas but expects you to have an understanding of principles and apply them to real life problems…which the assessments did not.”

So maybe if we change these few things today, we’ll be taking the first step on a long road towards dealing with the skills shortages of tomorrow.

Scott Young is a member of the panel for ATL’s pre-election debate on curriculum, “In a fast-changing world, how should a curriculum and assessment system enable all learners to achieve?” which takes place in London on 11 February.

In this, the fourth in a series of free discussions about key education issues, our panel will question whether in the rush to push through its untested reforms the Government is at risk of creating havoc for students, teachers, schools and universities with confusion over grades.

There are limited number of places still available – to find out more, see the ATL website.

By Scott Young, who is responsible for delivery of skills and employment objectives on the Thames Tideway Tunnel.

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