The shortage of young people considering a career in engineering and the wider debate about how we equip tomorrow’s leaders with the skills they need are subjects that remain high on the political agenda. As a major employer and a business committed to giving young talent the best opportunity to flourish, National Grid is playing a leading role in addressing the skills challenge. Caroline Hooley, Corporate Responsibility and Sponsorships Manager, explains more.
Pioneering a skills revolution
"While young people make up only 12% of the UK population, they’re 100% of our future."
Caroline Hooley, Corporate Responsibility and Sponsorships Manager.
In 2014, the engineering sector contributed an estimated £455.6 billion (27.1%) of the UK’s total £1,683 billion GDP.
Source: Engineering UK 2015.
There were two key messages to come out of the Engineering UK 2015 report on the health of this crucial sector of our economy. The first is that Britain remains a world leader in engineering, and the second is that we are facing a significant shortfall of skilled engineers to meet forecast demand by 2022.
When you also consider the report’s findings that engineering contributes around 27% of UK GDP, and that engineering employers have the potential to generate an extra £27 billion each year from 2022, the importance of this issue is very clear.
Steve Holliday, National Grid’s Chief Executive, has spoken passionately about the impact of engineering in a previous Connecting blog and summed up the situation neatly when he said recently: “The UK alone needs around 87,000 bright and creative minds to join the engineering sector every year in order to design the right energy systems for our future. But only 51,000 are currently joining the profession. Supply is simply not meeting demand.”
National Grid and the skills agenda
Having people with the right skills now and in the future is absolutely critical to our own business, but it is also an issue that has broader implications for society. While young people make up only 12% of the UK population, they’re 100% of our future. If we can inspire more young people to work in engineering, we will be better equipped to tackle the many global challenges we’re facing, like the supply of clean water and dealing with climate change. That’s why making our industry more accessible and attractive, and offering better opportunities for young people to gain work experience, is so important.
As a nation, and an industry, we also need to do much more to shatter stereotypes and make engineering a credible and exciting career choice for girls when they are making decisions at secondary school age. Not only is this an obvious way to plug the skills gap, it also brings to the table a different perspective, allowing for greater creativity, insight and problem solving. Sadly, women remain underrepresented in engineering. So one of National Grid’s manifesto ideas on skills, regardless of the outcome of May’s general election, is that as well as getting better careers advice in schools, more needs to be done to encourage girls into STEM subjects such as physics. The wider aim is to double the percentage of girls taking engineering degrees from the current 15% to 30%.
The power of teaming up
Bridging the skills gap is a laudable aim, but how do we make it happen? We believe that the UK can get to grips with the future skills agenda in a more effective way by bringing together like-minded people and organisations to work in partnership. Rather than competing across industry, this is a challenge where the collective is stronger than the individual. Working together we can better understand the challenges facing society, and by combining ideas we can make a more positive impact.
There are lots of examples where teaming up is already making a difference. National Grid currently chairs the Energy & Efficiency Industrial Partnership (EEIP) which comprises dozens of employers, backed by Government, all aiming to strengthen the UK’s future energy and utility workforce. The announcement in March of a new Power Engineering Degree Apprenticeship, backed by EEIP members including National Grid, demonstrates what closer collaboration can achieve.
We also fully support the premise that students need more regular exposure to the world of work. Expecting them to come ready-equipped with the right skills is unrealistic and there is a responsibility on industry to play its part. That’s why we created and developed Careers Lab. Now run by BITC, it takes business ambassadors, including employees from National Grid, into the classroom working alongside teachers to inspire young people and help them make the transition into the workplace.
Alongside this, we helped develop the interactive Engineer Your Future exhibition at London’s Science Museum, which encourages problem-solving and team-working skills while aiming to show 11-14 year olds what a great career engineering can be. And joining other leading businesses, we are founding donors of the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering. Seen as the Nobel Prize of engineering, the QE Prize aims to celebrate engineers who have changed society for the better through incredible solutions and designs. This, matched with their Create the Future campaign, hopes to excite young minds into our industry.
Skills through service
What do we even mean by skills? It’s a relevant question because it’s true to say that employers need young people with the right academic aptitude, but they also value the life skills developed through experiences. Teamwork, communication skills, how to deal with customers, empathy: these are all skills that need to be nurtured, practiced and honed. We believe that one important way young people can develop life skills is through dedicated social action programmes that encourage volunteering in the community. We believe service to others not only breeds qualities critical for the workplace but also helps to create more thriving societies; reflecting that what you do and how you do it are equally important.
Both in the US and UK, National Grid sponsors City Year, the youth and education charity that recruits 18-25 year olds for 12 months of full-time volunteering as role models in schools in deprived areas. In addition to sponsoring teams in our New York, Boston and Rhode Island jurisdictions, we also sponsor a City Year team working at Whitmore Primary School in Hackney, which is located along the route of one of our key infrastructure programmes: the London Power Tunnels project.
Another great example is Step Up to Serve and its #iwill campaign, which encourages young people between the ages of 10 and 20 to get involved in social action programmes. The initiative brings together more than 100 partners from the business and voluntary sectors, each of whom have made their own #iwill pledges. As a business pioneer, we have made a number of pledges including incorporating social action questions into our recruitment process.
We see volunteering as a really important contribution that our own employees can make. The volunteering programme run by our Community Action team enables colleagues to use an interactive hub to choose a volunteering activity linked to their own personal development goals. We can then match them to specific projects.
The way forward for skills development
From a National Grid perspective we devote a lot of time and energy to the skills agenda quite simply because it’s essential – for the long-term prosperity of our business, but also to give young people the opportunities they need.
And to return for a second to the findings of the Engineering UK 2015 report. Wouldn’t it be great if in the 2020 report we saw hard evidence that by teaming up, we’ve affected great change as an industry and made huge strides in shattering those stereotypes?