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The role of education-providers and employers in providing the future talent pipeline

Posted: 11 November 2022

As the 10th annual Tomorrow’s Engineers Week (7-11 November 2022) draws to a close, David Gillies says the link between education and employment must be strengthened to prepare people for their future careers.

"The relationship between education-providers and employers should be one of alignment," says David Gillies.
"The relationship between education-providers and employers should be one of alignment," says David Gillies.

Education-providers and employers must partner and work together to ensure careers in engineering are accessible to everybody. The education and skills sector plays a pivotal role in promoting and setting the foundation of the many possibilities within engineering – bringing through the diversity that’s needed and preparing students for the world of work. As employers, it’s important we work closely to ensure a joined-up process – by championing the careers available, providing an inclusive environment, and helping nurture new talent.

Engineering is such an incredibly exciting career choice. You could be working on a Formula 1 car or jet engine one day and on a sub-sea oil and gas project several kilometres under the ocean the next. Virtually everything we do involves an engineering process. It touches every element of our daily lives and I fail to see why we can't get more people interested in the endless possibilities it provides.

As a 16-year-old I was naturally inquisitive and interested in how things worked. But I had no comprehension of just how diverse engineering was, and school hadn't helped me understand it either. I asked a thousand questions, loved anything mechanical – cars, in particular – and I did think of going into the motor trade. However, I realised that engineering was infinite and much more than cars – it touched everything!

So, we need to shout more loudly about this amazing industry. In many countries, engineering is an extremely prestigious profession, on the same level as medicine and law. Yet, in the UK, the perception remains quite traditional, almost old fashioned, which couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s frustrating and, collectively, we must change that.

As importantly, employers have a major role to play in ensuring a healthily diverse and well-prepared future workforce.

First, we must engage and partner with institutions – across primary, secondary, further and higher education – in a far more meaningful way. As engineers, we must be more visible. My own organisation invests at board level in making sure we have strong national exposure with schools, colleges and universities. But there is still more to do.

Second, employers must be ready to receive learners in the right way. Traditionally, we would treat them as if they’d worked in the industry for several years. We can do a much better job in building a transitional bridge as people leave their life of formal learning and enter their life of professional learning in their career.

Third, we must create a safe environment for those coming into the industry, both physically and psychologically. Engineering sites can carry risk and as employers, we need to mitigate risk and have physically safe environments. Safety is a prerequisite. We need to be clear about that throughout the learning journey, such that employers don’t have to re-educate people entering the workplace about taking time to be safe. But the sector should also be psychologically safe. This means creating an inclusive and diverse culture – making people feel part of it from day one, whether as a learner or a new recruit.

Safety is critical; so too is inclusivity, being collaborative and highly inquisitive. In many ways, these traits are as important as qualifications; the rest we can train. It's that blend of IQ and EQ that makes the workforce of tomorrow, be that in engineering or other sectors.

These are the facets where the sector needs to step up and play a significantly greater role.

The relationship between education-providers and employers should be one of alignment. It is essential we work in partnership so those coming into the sector have a joined-up experience. We cannot have situations where the education journey takes people in a certain direction, only for them to begin their engineering careers and think: “This is nothing like I thought it was going to be.” If they have a misplaced expectation, they will probably leave and do something else. So, it's important we provide a compelling, exciting and aligned offer, whether in engineering or across-the-board.

Starting out on my own career, I was fortunate to do an engineering apprenticeship programme with my employer, in partnership with West Nottinghamshire College. As an apprentice, everything I learned at college related to what I was doing in the workplace. Somehow, as a country we've left that alignment behind. Let's get back to what we know worked well. The goal should not be ticking the box of providing a certification that’s already out-of-date; the goal should be to prepare and excite young people for the career they’re about to embark on for the rest of their lives. Strategically or conceptually in business, we talk about ‘postcard from the future’-type exercises. Well, this is our ‘Back to the Future’ moment.

Great strides are being made in Mansfield and Ashfield. My former college – where I am proud to serve as a governor – is doing a fantastic job in engaging with industry leaders through the creation of employer advisory panels. This level of collaboration brings a greater understanding of the needs of business and ensures there is a credible educational offer to meet those demands. Moreover, it enables the college and its students to understand the opportunities, excitement and inspiration that exists within a variety of sectors.

To succeed, businesses need customers – and they must truly understand them. This means asking questions: “What is the market I'm in? Who are my customers? What do they need from me? What do they value? What problems do they have today that we can play a part in resolving for the future?”

It is in the interests of the customer to partner with the supplier, and in the interests of the supplier to partner with the customer. The relationship between education and employment is exactly the same. It’s about asking the right questions, learning what is important, aligning and solving problems together.

Let's open the doors and engage with each other. We need to invest in the diversity, inclusivity, awareness and excitement that the engineering world can offer.

Together, we will achieve so much more.

David Gillies is chief executive officer of ERIKS UK & Ireland. He is also a governor of West Nottinghamshire College and chairs its engineering employers’ advisory panel.

Click here to see the range of engineering courses on offer at the college. 

Tomorrow’s Engineers Week (#TEWeek22) is organised by Engineering UK to shine a spotlight on engineering, engineering careers and engineering professionals. Now in its 10th year, the annual campaign aims to show young people, their influencers and the general public the real face of modern engineering and to understand that engineering is for everyone.

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