Posted: 5 December 2013
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Inspired to learn

Richard Earp, Process Manager at National Grid, explains why University Technical Colleges are an exciting opportunity for both education and industry.

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Inspired to learn

Inspired to learn

Since 2009, University Technical Colleges have offered 14-19 year old students the opportunity to take full-time, technically-based qualifications.

“The work we do at places like JCB and Warwick University can serve as a beacon to inspire other employers to do the same”

Richard Earp, Process Manager

Insight:

13 new UTCs will open across the UK in September 2014.

Source: Department for Education

Can University Technical Colleges solve the shortage of STEM skills in the UK? Process Manager Richard Earp, who spearheaded National Grid’s involvement in the first UTC, explains the advantages they bring and why they still need nurturing, like every promising student.

As a big engineering firm, National Grid often gets approached by people who want the company’s support, not least to help encourage more young people to pursue engineering careers. The company is fully behind this cause of course, but looks for schemes that have the credibility, expertise and vision to really make a difference.

Richard Earp, Process Manager at National Grid

Richard Earp, Process Manager at National Grid

University Technical Colleges (UTCs), which offer 14-19 year old students the opportunity to take full-time, highly-regarded, technically-based qualifications, is one such scheme. National Grid’s involvement in UTCs began in 2009, when we produced a report about the worrying lack of engineering skills in the UK and how false perceptions of the profession were affecting young people’s career choices.

Our findings prompted a call from engineering firm JCB, who shared similar concerns and asked us to support its work with the Baker Dearing Educational Trust, a charity set up to encourage more teenagers to study STEM (science, technology, maths) qualifications. JCB were setting up the very first UTC near their world headquarters in Staffordshire, the JCB Academy, and had really ambitious and exciting plans.

A meaningful contribution

The academy opened in September 2010 and National Grid has been a partner since the outset. Our employees visit regularly to set students real-life engineering problems. We are heavily involved in the curriculum too, a seismic shift from the single-day events and after-school clubs previously used to improve the reputation and quality of engineering education. The success of the JCB Academy has paved the way for other UTCs, including the WMG Academy at the University of Warwick, which opens in September 2014 with National Grid as a partner.

So does the rise of UTCs mean the shortage of STEM skills is a problem now solved? No, not yet. The full impact of UTCs will take time to emerge and they are not intended to address the entire STEM skills issue. However, we think they are a significant move in the right direction.

And it’s a move absolutely worth making. UTCs that produce high-calibre students are vital to our economy and for National Grid. In our business, you need local skills: we can’t simply move our work abroad, for example. And although we don’t have the resources to help every UTC across the country, the work we do at places like JCB and University of Warwick can serve as a beacon to inspire other employers to do the same.

Inspiration is fundamentally what this is all about. We need to change perceptions of engineering in schools and colleges altogether and ensure that it’s seen as a desirable pathway for everyone.

A compelling case

So what else can the energy industry do? The first step is to get involved and help make UTCs work, providing good materials, good advice and helping the schools market engineering effectively to students and parents. It’s up to employers to make a compelling case as to why a student should work hard on an engineering course,

We need to invest time with teachers too. A big lesson so far from our involvement in UTCs is that you must work closely with the teaching staff and help them understand the material we have. In conventional schools, young people can get GCSEs without talking to employers at all, but this just isn’t possible at a UTC.

A key ingredient for success in UTCs – and perhaps in other schools – is how much employers and teachers are willing to learn from each other. It’s our responsibility to inspire kids to work in engineering. So we need to set the example, get stuck in ourselves, show what a terrific and exciting world our profession can be and just how important engineering is to a healthy and prosperous society.

Read more

If we want more young people to go into engineering, we have to offer them better careers advice. Steve Holliday, National Grid’s Chief Executive, on the UK skills gap. Click here to view.

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