The coalition of the willing

Courtesy of BIS. Perkins
Professor John Perkins, author of the Review of Engineering Skills, 2013 visiting the Bing Bang Fair. Image courtesy of the Department for Business Innovation and Skills.

Jane Gray talks to Professor John Perkins about putting his highly acclaimed review of engineering skills in the UK into practice.

“I don’t think there was a golden age [for skills],” says Professor John Perkins as we discuss the setting for his highly acclaimed report on engineering skills in the UK.

“When people ask me about the severity of the skills challenge facing industry today I’m fond of citing a 19th century report which talks about the shortage of technically skilled workers. Our challenges are not new – nor are they constrained to the UK. Every developed economy in the world is looking at this issue – many producing reports similar to my own.”

But, he adds “hopefully there will be golden age in the future.”

The report

Prof Perkin’s report, published in November last year, was widely welcomed as a thorough and systematic exploration of industry skills gaps in the UK and the initiatives in place to bridge them – something which had been lacking previously (The Holt and Richard Reviews for example looked solely at Apprenticeships)

Addressing both academic and vocational pathways it delved into the reasons for the shortfalls in technical ability and inspiration that are, every day, acknowledged as barriers to greater industrial competitiveness for Britain.

If you’ve not read the report, at least in part, I can highly recommend it as a way to while away a train journey or a length of unplanned down time while you wait for those treasured engineers to come and get your factory back its feet.

It’s jam-packed with recognition for the best of British schemes to support manufacturing and engineering skills growth as well as recommendations for ways in which these could be improved, aligned, consolidated and generally made more visible and powerful.

For me, one of the key recognitions made by the report is around the importance of teachers in the process of inspiring the future industrial workforce. “Teachers are key influencers for career decisions,” observes Perkins.

“While a good teacher must first and foremost be good at teaching their subject, they must also be good at relating its relevance to the wider world,” he continues. “Critically, teachers of science and maths must understand and communicate that their subject can open doors. Too often maths and physics in particular are seen to narrow career options for young people. Nothing could be further from the truth.”

But what use is this kind of insight if it is left in the realms of theory?

Progress

Far too many reports – many with valuable content and postulations – have been left to gather dust on shelves or clutter up inbox capacity before being eventually chucked away or deleted, half read if the author is lucky.

Not so for Perkins who says he is pleased with the response the report had on publication, but is even more gratified by the work now emerging from it to really make a difference to the skills pipeline and future industrial competitiveness in the UK.

“The report was designed to act as a call to action,” he says. “That call has been answered and there is real leadership being shown.”

So far, four task and finish groups have been formed to take responsibility for certain collections of recommendations in the report.

These groups address industrial engagement with schools – including teachers – further education institutions, universities, and post graduate education. They are headed up respectively by: Steve Holliday, CEO of National Grid; Carol Burke, MD Unipart Manufacturing; Julia King, vice chancellor of Aston University and Helen Atkinson at the University of Leicester.

In addition, EngineeringUK, the organisation behind Tomorrow’s Engineers – which was strongly commended as a force for good in industry-education communication by Perkins – has just published research by Boston Consulting Group into what is really needed to support a national roll out of its initiative.

Finally, to keep industry and government up to speed with the developments afoot, Professor Perkins will head up a “one year on” progress report to be released in November this year.

How will this report measure achievement and judge whether positive change has been achieved?

“It’s not up to me of course,” Perkins interjects. “It’s about the response of the community.”

Which is not to say tangible measures are not to be expected. “We’ve resisted the urged to say the ‘x’ many engineers will be needed over the next ten years or to set ourselves a target in terms of uplift in numbers,” explains Perkins. “What we will be looking for is an increase in the rate of growth [in the number of young people entering engineering].”

Key challenge

In particular, Perkins is concerned to see an increase in the proportion of women embarking on engineering and manufacturing careers.

“It was the most disheartening thing we saw as we put this report together,” he states. “While the numbers of women in industry may have gone up in recent years, the percentage has stayed about the same. There has been very little progress on this since I was a lad.”

So did Perkins make any particular recommendations to get the ball rolling on gender balance in industry?

“Rather than demand certain actions, what the report aimed to do in this area was to sensitise industry and to make people a lot more careful about their language and the use of images that represent engineering.”

That said, Perkins assures that government is not taking a passive back seat while industry does the hard work on attracting more women into the fold.

“Number ten is taking a strong issue in the number of women in STEM jobs,” he shares. “In May there will be an announcement and a number of initiative focussed on encouraging more women to study STEM subjects – particularly maths and physics.”

The coalition of the willing

But while government has “tremendous convening power and responsibility for some aspects of the supply system” Perkins is clear that unless industry and the professional bodies working alongside and feeding into that supply system, there is no chance of making a difference to the long term skills pool for UK industry.

“It’s about marshalling a coalition of the willing,” Perkins concludes.

It sounds simple enough. There are so many manufacturers and supporting bodies who regularly exhibit passion and conviction in the battle to inspire and attract young talent into the sector.

But what about coalition, alignment and coordination? And what about the negative impact of competition in this space which ought to be so powerfully ruled by a concern for the greater good?

There is still work to be done to get more manufacturers engaging with their local schools generally, But we must not focus on this first step and lose sight of the bigger end goal.

Acting alone, in isolation, will not achieve much – certainly not for the long term.

Those who really aspire to change the fortunes of British industry and ensure it can compete as an industrial power must raise their eyes to the work of peers and colleagues, locally and around the country to ensure that every school, college and university receives a positive and consistent message about the opportunities and excitement the manufacturing and engineering sector have to offer.

Perkins is optimistic that a “spirit of collaboration”, now swelling within industry will make this vision a reality and that the recommendations in his report will enable a national infrastructure to empower that spirit.

However, to my mind he is a little coy about the problem of competition.

Skills provision and support is a highly competitive arena and almost every one of the 1,000 plus initiatives targeted at closing industry skills gaps has a passionate belief in some USP which it believes it has brought to the task.

Perkins assures that Tomorrow’s Engineers, which he selected as the key method for delivering a national schools engagement model, “is not about trying to take over what other people are doing” to engage with schools.

Last month, Paul Jackson, EngineeringUK’s CEO, explained to TM that his team aims to use the data during Boston Consulting’s – controversially expensive – research, to help direct and target industrial engagement with schools so that it is better distributed.

What is not clear however, is whether this data will be shared openly with the wider community of skills activists or whether EngineeringUK will seek to form some kind of Memorandum of Understanding with it peers and competitors to consolidate points of access to information about their nature, reach and ambitions so that industrialists and teachers could pick up and run with the wealth of skills support now on offer, regionally and nationally.

If the sum of the parts embodied by Tomorrow’s Engineers, WorldSkills, Teen Tech, Imagineering, STEMNET, Skills Gap, Make It and countless other initiatives could be pooled, then we could create a truly great coalition of the willing and an infinitely greater impact.