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Future engineers urged to ‘do the math’

25 August 2016

With this year’s GCSE results showing an increase in pupils retaking maths, there is a call for a grassroots change to bring more young people into engineering.

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Last weeks exam results, that show a downturn in pupils’ performance in maths, highlights an issue confirmed by a recent OECD study. Based on the OECD’s international tests and surveys, the study suggests school performance in the UK could be boosted by improving confidence among boys - and girls especially - towards tackling maths and science, and by parents encouraging their children to consider careers involving subjects such as engineering.

One engineering specialist, which is aware of the missed opportunity created by this issue, is KW Special Projects (KWSP). In its bid to encourage more young people into engineering, the firm has taken a proactive approach to helping students to make the vital link between maths and engineering. The Brackley-based company has strong links with local schools, colleges and universities, contributing regularly to guest lectures and student projects as well as a full work experience program.

Head of operations at KWSP, Sophie Kilmister, said “while the chronic under-representation of women in engineering rightly receives a lot of media coverage, it’s the chronic lack of qualified engineers in general that is our key focus. As a fast growing, high precision engineering company, we are keen to recruit academically-qualified, practically minded people with proven problem solving skills.”  

In a bid to satisfy its continuing growth aspirations, KWSP has even broadened its recruitment search to international waters. The business has recently undertaken a two month EU Erasmus exchange program, which saw Ioanna Preza, from Greece, develop her engineering skills and knowledge. Following successful completion, the role was made permanent and she now works as a graduate engineer primarily in special purpose machine design.

Ioanna Preza said, “while it took me a few months to really settle into my new surroundings here in Brackley, the team at KWSP were very supportive when it came to issues such as relocation, advice on tax and the culture of working in the UK. 

“The last few months have been a massive learning curve for me. This is my first full-time job and beginning my career at a business that provides engineering solutions to the likes of Formula One teams is pretty challenging! It’s been a demanding few months, but I have already been involved in the design and manufacture of an industrial inkjet project as well as several motorsport projects, which have both utilised my knowledge of mechanical engineering. This opportunity would be hard to match in Greece.”

Kieron Salter, managing director of KWSP, commented “the UK has a huge deficit of engineers. According to a recent government report, the sector has the potential to contribute an additional £27 billion to the economy by 2022, but only if we can fill the 250,000 engineering vacancies needed to deliver on this potential in the same timeframe. With only 8 percent of roles within the industry held by women, there’s huge untapped potential here.

“While in the short-term, we can continue to cast our recruitment net as wide as possible to include countries such as Greece, India, Poland and the USA, we also need to look to the long term. I think as a country we need to present maths and science to girls in a way that builds their confidence from an early age, so it is taken further in later education as a viable topic.

“The OECD report confirms that girls’ confidence in maths is low from an early age, effectively cutting them off from even considering engineering as a career aspiration. We need to do everything we can to encourage more girls to both enjoy and adopt maths as a foundation for further education. If we can do this, more girls will consider science-based degrees and therefore improve the quota of women in engineering.” 

Salter concludes; “crucially, the rest of the world is not standing still though. It continues to develop and evolve its engineering capabilities and this generates more competition than ever before. If the UK is to continue the legacy it has created as a true innovator, then it must work harder collectively. This includes the industry, educators and the government engaging with young women and inspiring them to look upon engineering as a potential career. Once a woman, or indeed a man for that matter, chooses a career in engineering, it is down to us as employers to make the most of the support available to ensure that it is sustained as a lifelong occupation and that we do not lose vital minds to other sectors.”

Ioanna Preza from Greece

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According to The Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET), more schools should adopt the International Baccalaureate instead of A-levels to tackle the UK’s engineering skills shortage.

Naomi Climer, President of IET, said “for years there have not been enough young people studying Maths and Physics at A-level. If we don’t drastically reverse this trend, we cannot expect to address the skills shortage as millions of our future generation will continue to inadvertently shut the door on exciting and creative careers in engineering and technology.

“One way of tackling the challenge would be if more schools were to offer the International Baccalaureate, which incorporates six subjects including Maths and a science, rather than the three subjects students typically opt for at A-level. This would mean that fewer young people would be forced to make choices at 16 that can limit their career options later on.

“The International Baccalaureate provides a broader education for 16 to 18 year olds than A-levels, while still majoring on those areas pertinent to the students’ interests and future needs. This gives young people longer to discover their real strengths and interests before making life affecting choices. While the International Baccalaureate is offered widely within the private sector, it is currently only available at a handful of state schools in the UK.

“There continues to be huge demand for engineers and we are at risk of stifling economic growth if we do not encourage more students to study maths and science subjects, so it’s crucial that we think more laterally about how our education system can support our country’s economic ambitions.”

Also commenting on last weeks GCSE results, Tim Thomas, Head of Employment & Skills Policy at EEF, the manufacturers’ organisation, said “the results will be worrying news for employers. Manufacturers, already facing an uphill battle to find the next generation of skilled workers they need, will be concerned at the sharp falls in passes. GCSE maths is a key measure of achievement for manufacturers who will have little hope of filling places for high quality apprenticeships unless the education system in England can do better.

“Whatever the entry point into manufacturing, whether this is via higher education or a high quality apprenticeship, Maths and English in particular are critical qualifications. With an acute skills shortage, government must recognise that blaming employers for not training the next generation of workers ignores the fact that too many lack basic qualifications. Government, with employers, must quickly address this.”

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