A level better

Posted on 19 Aug 2011 by The Manufacturer

Jane Gray considers manufacturing reactions to yesterday’s A level results and throws in some thoughts of her own.

Yesterday’s release of this year’s A level results has, perhaps unsurprisingly, sparked a fire trail of comments pouring into TM’s press inbox on, either the deleterious state of UK education and the regrettable shortfall of sound engineering graduates in the UK; or speculating on the opportunity for the manufacturing sector to snap up the near misses, as well as those who never intended to go to university, with offers of lucrative apprenticeships.

For my part I must admit that I sympathise with the latter view considerably more than with the former – though both are surrounded with quid pro quos.

While we may be suffering an engineering skills shortfall in the UK we were told yesterday that there has been a leap forward in the number of young people taking STEM subject A levels – so there is hope for the future if we can only resolve manufacturing’s enduring PR problem. In the meantime there are in fact many extremely talented graduates and post graduates studying engineering sciences in the UK having travelled from abroad to do so.

We do not do enough to exploit and foster this foreign talent which we nurture. When I recently attended Ferrari’s World Design Competition – which challenged engineering design students to put forward a prototype, using advanced CAD software from Autodesk, for the next Ferrari supercar and put a cash prize as well as an internship with the company up for grabs – I spoke with the London-based Royal College of Art team who won third prize.

Out of a team of four, three of the students were from outside the UK and although all spoke enthusiastically of their desire to progress in the automotive industry, all also spoke of internships and ambitions in either the EU or USA. Britain has a fine automotive heritage – Bentley, McLaren, even Morgan and Ricardo for even more diversity – which could benefit from capturing this talent. Instead of complaining about ‘brain drain’ or saying that we are educating the competition we could do make it easier for these future industry stars to apply their talents in the UK.

With regards to sopping up disappointed uni applicants with offers of apprenticeships – it sounds a great idea and it is to be applauded that organisations like the CBI made public statements which pointed to apprenticeships as alternative routes. Dr Neil Bentley, CBI deputy director-general said: “For people who choose not to go on to university, businesses offer a wide range of vocational training options, such as apprenticeships and work placements, which are hugely valuable and well-respected in the work place.”

However, set as it was behind a backdrop of eulogies about the importance of a university education this comment highlights the obvious danger in framing apprenticeships as an alternative for those turned away from their preferred universities. CBI have said that by 2017, 56% more jobs will require a graduate-level qualification.

Vocational education is still seen as second choice, a poor relation of ‘academic’ credentials, despite the fact that advanced and higher apprenticeships often include NVQ level equivalent to those of degrees and can lead into post graduate training courses.

There is an opportunity to show those left stranded without university places that there are opportunities in manufacturing. But we must be careful that they do not enter into apprenticeships with the attitude that they are killing time until something better comes along. Ideally careers advice in schools should be rounded enough so that all applicants for advanced and higher apprenticeships are from individuals who know what they are entering into and for whom this route is not an ‘alternative’ but a first choice.