Grooming engineers: How the U.K. does it

July 25, 2002
EMTA sparks youngsters’ interest in engineering by first getting them hooked on model cars, then moving up to Formula 1 racers. Entrants build and test model cars on a variety of tracks.

EMTA sparks youngsters' interest in engineering by first getting them hooked on model cars, then moving up to Formula 1 racers. Entrants build and test model cars on a variety of tracks.

The United Kingdom is in dire need of highly qualified engineers and technicians, according to its Engineering and Marine Training Authority (EMTA), an organization dedicated to improving science, engineering, and technology. This year, for example, there's a shortfall of 12,000 skilled engineers to fill industrial vacancies.

But engineering has an image problem that hampers efforts to recruit or train people for these positions. Engineering in the U.K. is often associated only with oil-stained overalls and "old-style" heavy industries, not labs and "clean-room" technologies that increasingly need well-trained staff. In contrast, continental European engineers have a more elevated social status similar to that of doctors and lawyers.

Another problem, especially in terms of technicians, is that more young people are being encouraged to earn university degrees where emphasis is on academic learning rather than on tool and die or disciplines. As a result, the manual and technical skills of the U.K. workforce are eroding.

Something for everyone
EMTA has several programs aimed at turning things around. To reach children between the ages of 11 and 18, for example, it works with the Jaguar F1 Team on its CAD/CAM Design Challenge. This competition involves young people in the research, design, test, and manufacture of model cars. The finished cars are powered by compressed gas. Cars built by students from schools all over the U.K. meet in regional heats. Finalists go to a national event in which winners attend Grand Prix races and visit Jaguar's plant.

To get more women into engineering and science careers, EMTA collaborates with organizations such as Women Into Science and Engineering (Wise) and Science, Engineering and Technology for Women (set4women). These organizations highlight women in engineering, letting them serve as role models. One highly successful campaign, the "Young Woman Engineer of the Year Award," is now in its 25th year. It generates publicity as well as stimulates interest in young women aspiring to become engineers.

EMTA also sponsors a Modern Apprenticeship program to give young men and women the skills for a 21st century workplace. The program is open to those between 16 and 21 years of age as an alternative to purely academic training. The apprenticeships recruit young people into engineering, especially women and minorities who are underrepresented in engineering. Training is usually on-site with employers, but there is also a national network of industrial training companies which train apprentices for clients. This is useful for smaller companies that don't have the resources to run full-time training programs. But companies themselves have some control over qualifications apprentices should meet, ensuring industrial relevance.

One key qualification developed by EMTA, for example, is Performing Engineering Operations. It covers aspects such as health, safety, and teamwork. A similar qualification developed by EMTA, Performing Manufacturing Operations, has a production-orientated theme. Students can get training in 37 other areas including welding, materials, producing castings, and using CNC machines. The inherent diversity of the qualification is such that there's something suitable for almost every engineering employer. Apprentices build on these with formally certified programs of academic study to underpin work-based training. There is also a requirement for candidates to develop key skills, namely literacy, numeracy, presentation skills, and information technology skills.

EMTA administers and presents all vocational certification for over 40 qualification programs in diverse business areas such as management, distribution, and warehousing. A group of external verifiers, who are also professionally qualified engineers and fully qualified training assessors, ensures standards are met. To date, over 150,000 engineers have completed at least one EMTA qualification course.

Another arm of EMTA, Training Publications Limited, designs and produces nearly all EMTA publications, including training materials, careers brochures, and news magazines. Careers brochures go to colleges as well as individuals. The organization also puts out two biannual EMTA magazines on training and productivity, Matters and Network, which boast of circulations of 17,000 and 26,000, respectively.

Finally, EMTA's network of 44 Engineering Learning Link centers across the U.K. provide a clearinghouse for engineering related training. Companies go to them to discuss training and labor requirements with an adviser.

For small, cash-strapped companies, EMTA arranges funding. One key benefactor is the European Social Fund which grants up to 45% of the costs for approved training courses. Many employers apply for these funds to retrain employees in management development, 3D CAD/CAM, e-commerce, and MRP.

EMTA has also worked with the BBC on a TV series titled Working In Engineering. These 20 separate programs cover career advice, teamwork, the environment, and even nanotechnology. For further information:

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