Lead story January – Youth engagement can work smarter, not harder

Posted on 5 Jan 2012

With so many youth engagement programmes, industry has reached a point where better coordination and information sharing would be more effective than launching more schemes, says Will Stirling.

Richard Noble got up to leave the meeting with a heavy heart. His last ditch appeal to the minister for the missing piece of his 1,000mph jigsaw puzzle had fallen on deaf ears, his project looked doomed. “Hang on a minute, Richard” said Paul Drayson, then the Minister for Strategic Defence Acquisition Reform. “There’s something you can do for us.”

Drayson, also then the Minister for Science at the Department for Business (BIS), told Noble the extent of the science and engineering skills gap in the UK. Unless something was done, and soon, the education system would fail to equip youngsters for the hundreds of thousands of future jobs in technical fields. In the US in the 1960s, he said, during the manned space programme the number of applications for degrees and PhDs in science and engineering (STEM) subjects quadrupled. A similar phenomenon occurred in the UK and France when Concorde was being developed.

BloodHound Education Centre

The conclusion: the UK needed a big, shiny project to inspire school children to become scientists. Noble signed up, he got his Rolls-Royce engine – on loan – and Bloodhound SSC, the world land speed record project, was a goer. It was January 2007. Since then, Bloodhound has engaged with more than 4,800 schools nationwide, demonstrating the car’s capability and helping start model rocketry projects. Birmingham’s Joseph Leckie College built a model that travels at over 80mph. Paul (now Lord) Drayson’s vision is working.

Make it in Great Britain, Made by Britain, Engineered in Britain, Make it in Manufacturing – a wave of manufacturing patriotism is washing over the country. If someone outside the sector was asked to research what is wrong with British youth’s perception of engineering careers, on the body of evidence he might reasonably conclude ‘nothing’. There are literally hundreds of engagement programmes and projects nationwide, ranging from day visits at small companies to grand projects like The Big Bang Fair and WorldSkills UK. Science and maths network STEMNET ran 35,000 activities in the last 12 months – allowing for 20 kids per engagement, that’s 700,000 young people ‘reached’. The number and variety of outreach programmes in the UK organised by institutions like the Royal Academy of Engineering, EngineeringUK, the Institution of Mechanical Engineers and The Manufacturing Institute is staggering (see below illustration).

And those who record children’s responses say it is working.

Following a visit to the Big Bang Fair, EngineeringUK asked children questions on their impressions of engineering and science – 74% of boys and 81% of girls aged 12-19 said that the visit had changed their view of engineering either ‘slightly more’ or ‘much more’ positively. Sixty-one percent of boys and 58% of girls of the same age said that their visit had made them either ‘a little more’ or ‘much more’ likely to want to be an engineer. It is having an effect but clearly much more is needed, hence the existence of Bloodhound.

BAE Systems Schools Roadshow Launch - Blue Peter's Andy Akinwolere with Brains the BAe systems roadshow robot and pupils from Dame Burdett Coutts Primary School, Westminster.

Companies are more than pulling their weight, too. Dig around and nearly every manufacturer of a critical mass runs some kind of youth engagement project. Coca-Cola Enterprises (CCE) has built education centres at four UK manufacturing sites, most recently a large investment at Sidcup. In 2010, over 12,500 students completed an educational programme with CCE and, the company claims, 100% of teachers said they would recommend the visit. BAE Systems runs the Engineering Roadshow, a heavily-funded programme in partnership with the RAF, the purpose of which is to inspire STEM subjects. “By the end of 2011, 125,000 school children will have seen BAE Systems’ travelling theatre show since it began in 2005,” says BAE’s Kate Watcham. “In 2010 we doubled our roadshow activity and reached over 300 schools nationwide.

High technology group Renishaw is part of the STEMNET programme, and it has just appointed an Education Liaison Officer to facilitate school visits. Firth Rixson, Tata Steel and Yamazaki Mazak are just some of the other big manufacturers doing a lot with schools. But small companies do a great deal in this field, and some of their stories reveal a darker reality to the challenge.

Build it and they will come.. sometimes

Alan Pickering, managing director of tube bending machine manufacturer Unison organised the Scarborough Engineering Week in September, which put 1,000 schools through his company. “Boy it was hard work, and painful, but worth it,” he says. Painful? Getting teachers and kids into companies is not easy – although teachers might counter-argue the same is true for some companies. “The apathy within our education system to actually get kids ready for work rather than to hit targets is astounding,” said Mr Pickering. “There are so many reasons why not to do stuff – risk assessments, transport hold-ups – rather than engaging more with businesses in the local area. The event was free, the kids that came loved it – it’s the teachers that need a rocket up their backsides!”

One manufacturer in the North East told TM that he had invited several Tyneside schools to visit his factory. Eight of them accepted. On the arranged day, only one showed up. Will Butler-Adams of Brompton Bicycle, who makes an identifiable product that should get school kids really stimulated, has similar tales of no shows on the day.

Coca-Cola Real Business Challenge 2011, at Chelsea FC London

But there is much happening and all this good work has not gone unnoticed. In June, the Government (BIS) launched See Inside Manufacturing, a campaign to get school children into factories to experience manufacturing, starting with the automotive industry. Every volume carmaker in the UK, and several manufacturers of parts, diggers and trucks, opened their doors to schools in a concentrated burst of visits in October. Hailed a success, BIS couldn’t provide the final number of students who were involved but the Department has plans to replicate the programme at aerospace companies in 2012 and, following that, the chemicals sector.

The Government launched two other engagement projects in 2011. Made By Britain is designed to replicate a “virtual Great Exhibition” by showcasing one manufacturing company from every constituency in the UK, both physically at Alexandra Palace and digitally online. Its purpose is to: raise the sector’s profile and engage with kids. Then in October BIS launched the confusingly similar Make It In Great Britain, which will appoint 30 industry champions to promote the virtues of manufacturing to young people and the investor community. It will culminate in another exhibition at The Science Museum in London concurrent with the Olympic Games. A busy six months for the government’s PR team, but unsurprising give the urgency of economic rebalancing.

With so many projects running, what’s the problem? Every single youth engagement is a good thing, as many people including Mr Butler-Adams, one of the Make it in Great Britain industry champions and Nicola Eagleton-Crowther, who leads ‘Make it in Manufacturing’ run by TMI, say. But if the common goal is to make engineering – and manufacturing – careers more popular, to grow the sector, then there is a vast amount of intellectual capital held within these disparate projects that could be tapped with a better connected, national network.

The numbers are big. Most of WorldSkills’ 200,000 visitors were young people, the organisers say. Science and maths network STEMNET organised 35,000 activities in its Stemnet Volunteer Programme, which gets STEM-enthused volunteers into schools and colleges to explain practical applications of science. Head of public affairs Teresa Sutton says on average there are 20 to 25 children involved in each activity, equating to +800,000 youngsters accessed. Tomorrow’s Engineers, the outreach programme run by EngineeringUK, is a front runner. “By 2020 we estimate that 100,000 young people a year will experience The Big Bang and Tomorrow’s Engineers  has the potential to influence  over 130,000 pupils a year, reaching over half a million through the use of our evaluation scheme and career resources,” EngineeringUK’s Miriam Laverick says. Given the numbers, networking the activities and pooling the data, such as tallying improved perceptions and decisions on GCSE options, seems tantalising.

Join the dots

Regionally, promoting manufacturing at schools can seem disjointed and almost competitive, a concern with cash-strapped public finances. Alison Bettac, HR director at steel converter Firth Rixson and on the manufacturing board of the Sheffield LEP, says, “The environment is far too fractious. In this region alone we’ve got Work-Wise, run by Business Education South Yorkshire which was but is no longer funded by the Local Authority; we now have work experience.com, which is funded by the Local Authority and we have the Master Cutlers Education Programme. They are all doing the same thing and you want to say “come on, get a grip on this””.

Could the smaller, and company-based, youth projects learn from the experiences of the larger ones like Big Bang Fair? Should a national strategy link-up all these programmes, and process the data, to assist policy-making? Richard Noble of Bloodhound SSC says, “It’s best to have a collection of small intense programmes working at grass roots rather than one national entity. Today with IT there’s no reason why small organisations can’t communicate with one another to ensure continuity.” But are they doing so? BIS’s latest project, Make it in Great Britain (MiiGB), could have played a role in joining these dots rather than being another parallel engagement scheme. “We value any initiative that aims to raise the profile of manufacturing and promote the sector as an attractive career choice for young people,” says Make It’s Eagleton-Crowther. “Clearly this needs to connect to the current successful activity taking place. The expected outputs for MiiGB are not yet clear but we look forward to hearing more about what the campaign hopes to achieve.”

Paul Jackson, CEO of EngineeringUK, says it’s essential to coordinate with other projects and to assess the outcomes: “It is always good to see enthusiasm for promotion of manufacturing and engineering careers to young people. We have been encouraging those who want to get involved to be clear about the targeting of initiatives, coordinating with others who are already working in the space to get the best overall impact and to have a proper evaluation scheme in place. We already have over 150 organisations doing just that through the Tomorrow’s Engineers programme and The Big Bang.”

Raytheon's Youth Rocketry Challenge

The Government, and industry, could do a great deal more with these activities if they joined them up, helped share best practice and pooled user experience feedback. When asked whether the MiiGB programme could have helped co-ordinate such a network, a BIS spokesman said: “By working closely with industry, through this campaign and other initiatives like See Inside Manufacturing, we can make sure that we leave a legacy of changed perceptions and engaged young people who are willing to seek out and enjoy rewarding careers in British industry.” Sure, but how precisely do others work in tandem with this campaign and use the information procured?