The closing gap between engineering and academia

By Clive Hawkins, Director of Highbank Communications and Partner at Etoile Partners

 What is an engineer? A simple question but often answered in a myriad of ways, that shows the term ‘engineer’ means different things to different people. 

Over the years governments, institutions and companies have sought to show-case engineering, to promote its attractiveness as a career and halt the student intake decline in science and engineering subjects. 
While I am not an engineer, my father was and, having worked with engineers all my working life, I have seen at first-hand their expertise in problem-solving and ability to manage and deliver major infrastructure projects. I also spent many years promoting National Grid’s support of public engineering campaigns such as YES (Year of Engineering Success), CPE (Campaign to Promote Engineering) as well as numerous company-specific initiatives.
Despite the enthusiasm and best endeavours from everyone involved, the change in public awareness and understanding around engineering has been slow. However, I believe we are now starting to see a change and a recent business visit to Leigh UTC in Dartford, Kent http://theleighutc.org.uk has strengthened my optimism that real progress is now being made. 
For those of you whom may be unaware of what a UTC is, University Technical Colleges are government-funded schools and a relatively new concept. They teach 14-18 year old students technical and scientific subjects in a new way, structured to reflect a real-life working environment. The length of the school-day is extended to that found in working life. Students wear suits and smart clothes instead of school uniforms and operate within a strong team-working environment. They have access to modern technology and equipment, enabling them to undertake technical, practical and academic learning and partner with local employers and universities to apply theory with real-life engineering challenges — from conception to design to production. They continue to study maths and english alongside engineering qualifications, thereby helping them understand the inter-relationship between these core subjects http://www.utcolleges.org/about/overview/.

This approach enables students to achieve academic qualifications and develop an in-depth understanding of the needs and expectations of employers. At the Leigh UTC business meeting, case study presentations were given by several students and you could see their confidence, self-belief and pride shining through. This approach undoubtedly makes students more marketable to universities and potential employers and provides the perfect bridge between a school environment and the workplace.  

For companies wanting to develop links with educational establishments and looking at apprentice or trainee intakes, a UTC has a wealth of talent. For parents helping their children decide on a career choice — and have seen their off-spring show great enthusiasm in early years for taking toys apart to learn how they work and then put them back together and make them operate better — a UTC is the perfect educational establishment!
As a society, we need engineers to enrich our lives by developing and enhancing the goods, services and infrastructure we often take for granted. As a country, we need to develop engineers of tomorrow, to maintain our prosperity in a highly competitive global market. UTC’s are stimulating the inventors, engineers, scientists and technicians of tomorrow and closing the gap between engineering and academia. 
I encourage you to visit a UTC and see the progress being made for yourself.