Tony Moloney, National Grid UK’s Manager, Education and Skills, explains how the company aims to inspire young people to consider a career in engineering.
In the old days, work experience for school students often amounted to little more than spending a week in a company, making the tea, a spot of photocopying, quick tour of the plant, tick the box and done.
At National Grid, we are passionate about encouraging young people to consider engineering as an exciting and rewarding career, which is why we like to talk about offering them work inspiration, not just old-school work experience.
But what form does that work inspiration take at National Grid, and what lessons have we learnt that might help other companies who want to follow a similar path?
Collaboration as the starting point
Our journey across this landscape began with collaboration, something that is hard-wired into our culture at National Grid. In particular, we commissioned a report in 2009 as a starting point for our Engineering Our Future programme.
The report was based on more than 1,500 interviews with young people aged 14 to 19, their parents and teachers. It painted a gloomy picture of confusion surrounding the role of engineering, with many young people seeing it as nothing more than menial, routine work. This was accompanied by low levels of appreciation for engineers’ contribution to society.
The research also gave us some valuable insights into what the young people actually thought about engineering as a career. For example, six out of ten of them could not name a recent engineering achievement, they perceived engineering to be an industry for ‘blue collar’ men in overalls who fix things, and girls told us they were ten times less likely than boys to pursue a career in engineering.
We were determined to help change these perceptions and, during 2011, we really got into the business of delivering our core offering for school students.
One of our programmes that has the biggest impact is the National Grid Work Experience Programme, where we bring in 100 children – who have shown a strong aptitude to study STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects at A Level and beyond – for a week-long residential course at our training centre in Newark.
Working in partnership with educational charity The Smallpeice Trust, we offer them real-life work inspiration in a dynamic environment that improves their knowledge of STEM within a rich engineering context.
During the week, students explore the world of energy and generation and get close-up to high-voltage substations, lines and cables. They visit a gas compressor site and a major power station, and learn how electricity is generated and distributed. We link the experience through to their STEM subjects by talking about things like the significance of OHM’s Law and showing them a Van de Graaff generator. At one point, we even make electricity leap into the air in an arc – under completely safe conditions – and by doing all of this we offer the students experiences that you just cannot replicate in a classroom.
It’s quite a costly exercise, but hugely rewarding. It also gives National Grid an early opportunity to engage with potential recruits who might one day become our engineers.
But the really great thing is that young people who stay with us for the week end up saying that the experience has left them seriously thinking about a career in engineering.
In addition, we have developed a range of curriculum support materials for key stage 1 to 4, which we branded School Power. Alongside these materials, we have also developed a special education website, and our employees regularly go into schools to do talks and assist with teaching around the curriculum, both at primary and secondary level.
Through these and other programmes, we reach school students right across the age and ability range. We engage directly with nearly 6,000 of them each year – increasing to 7,000 this year – through visits to our sites, our work experience programmes and by getting our engineers out as ambassadors into schools.
Growing our core programmes
For the future, we want to grow our core programmes, and are developing even more stimulating educational resources and activities.
We have a 3D, ‘immersive’ learning capability at our training centre, where we can simulate real-life industry scenarios and even put someone at the top of a tower or deep underground in a tunnel. We want to find a way to bring this amazing facility into the classroom on a smaller scale.
We are currently interested in developing a competition where schools could compete against each other to build robots, so that students can learn about important areas such as programming, design, assembly and problem solving, plus develop ‘softer’ skills such as team working.
We have an exciting project in the pipeline to develop a three-year careers exhibition experience at the Science Museum in London, aimed at 11 to 15 year olds.
And we are committed to reaching young people through new digital channels. For example, we are already supporting a new online careers portals for young people called Plotr, and we intend to build links with other sites such as WikiJob and The Student Room.
Create your own work inspiration
In his speech to the recent Spectator Skills Forum in London, National Grid’s Chief Executive Steve Holliday called upon business leaders to take a more active role in giving young people a better understanding of the exciting opportunities offered by a career in science and engineering.
Meeting that challenge may prove difficult, but it is vitally important for the future of our industry and the success of ‘UK plc’.
However, the response we get from young people to our educational programmes is tremendously encouraging, and I would urge anyone with an interest in this area to consider how they can best deliver work inspiration too.
Tony Moloney joins the debate about the best way to prepare young people for the world of work.
The skills gap.
Steve Holliday, National Grid’s Chief Executive, discusses the UK skills gap at the Spectator skills forum in London.