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Will big prizes and financial incentives inspire a new generation of engineers?

17 November 2011

The Prime Minister appears to be going out on a limb to associate his office with the campaign to inspire the next generation of engineers, announcing last week the foundation of a major international engineering prize - the £1m Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering - and a new competitive fund, backed by public investment, to give UK employers more ownership of the vocational skills agenda.

The shortage of engineering talent in this, and other developed industrial nations, is well documented and it seems the message is finally getting through that some real action must be taken in order to stem the exodus of young people from the broader engineering curriculum. But whether high-profile prizes or the rather less glamorous reallocation of skills funding is going to achieve that aim, is a moot point.

Last Thursday, the Prime Minister announced that businesses will be given the power to design, develop and bid for the vocational training programme they need under the terms of a new £250 million fund. In the New Year, employers will be invited to join the auction for a share of this new fund, which will route public investment directly to employers, ostensibly giving them the power to invest in the training they actually need.

Only the day before, business secretary Vince Cable announced measures to bolster the nation’s apprenticeships programme - which he described as “world class” - and remove some of the ‘red tape’ that is deterring a lot of enterprises. The aim is to encourage the many small firms of 50 employees or less that don’t currently hire apprentices in the 16-24 age group, to do so. In return, the government will offer those employers an ‘incentive’ payment up to a maximum of £1,500 per apprentice.

This will be delivered in two stages: an initial payment, followed by the balance of the grant when the candidate has completed his or her apprenticeship and progressed into "sustainable" employment. Rather perversely, apprenticeship providers will also be required to offer training in English and maths up to the standard of a good GCSE (level 2) - a task, one might have assumed, the schools should have completed before releasing their charges into the wider world.

Meanwhile, the fund announced by the Prime Minister will route public investment directly to employers and will be backed by resources from existing skills budgets. Funding for 2012/13 will be up to £50m, with an additional £200m in the second year, which will be subject to review once the take-up and the quality of employer proposals are known.

In terms of the flexibility of our skills delivery, Mr Cable believes we are simply treading water when international comparisons are made. He says we have fundamentally to alter the relationship between employers and the state, giving the former the space and opportunity for greater ownership of the vocational skills agenda, including the chance to bid for direct control of public funds.

This vision of greater employer ownership of the skills agenda has been championed for some time by the UK Commission for Employment and Skills (UKCES) whose chairman, Charlie Mayfield, welcomed the move.

“Skills are not a separate agenda but integral to growth,” says Mr Mayfield, who is also chairman of the John Lewis Partnership – a company placed number eleven in the Times Top 100 Graduate Employers ranking. “We have seen some progress but not enough. Too often the skills system appears to businesses as a government-led enterprise rather than one led by employers. We need more businesses working together with their supply chains, sectors or localities to develop the skills they need. The best way to do this is to route funds directly to employers, placing the responsibility and reward for how money is spent with the employer, not government.”

Another supporter is Nigel Whitehead, group managing director Programmes & Support, at BAE Systems. He welcomes the government’s commitment to give employers greater ownership of vocational skills. “We are committed to working with other employers to maximise the impact of our investment in skills,” he says. “And are aiming to provide more than 500 work experience placements throughout the UK, including in areas of high unemployment. We are also committed to continuing to run a substantial apprenticeship programme and to encouraging an expansion of apprenticeships in our supply chain".

The government expects to issue a formal prospectus on the fund jointly with UKCES early in 2012 so that projects can begin later in the year.

Les Hunt
Editor

 


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