SOMETIMES it’s hard to work out what is going on in the jobs market. Take engineering, for example. It is this discipline that the entire fortune of the Western industrialised world was built upon. Its crucible, the birthplace of the industrial Revolution, was Britain, and Wales was hugely important.
We are surrounded by the innovations of our Welsh forebears. We live in a world shaped by them. And yet we are told to rejoice these days when a shopping centre opens, providing work for some of those that lost their jobs when a technical plant closed down in the area. Leaving aside the skills that have gone forever, nobody is asking how much money is being lost to the Welsh economy in this ongoing migration from manufacturing to service, from relatively well-remunerated to minimum wage.
At the same time, we hear that companies are crying out for skilled staff. Trevor Garlick, BP’s head of North Sea operations, recently sparked a debate by saying a failure to find experienced hands could hold back the company’s plans for growth. Similarly, Bloomberg reported that Germany was short of some 77,000 engineers. An extraordinary figure, it is at least partly borne out by BMW’s presence on UK engineering recruitment sites.
The dilemma for the Welsh Government is whether it trains Welsh students fully in the knowledge that they may disappear off to benefit another country’s economy. However, Wales’ higher education institutions offering over 50 different qualifications across sectors that include construction, mechanical, aerospace, electronics and cutting edge materials engineering, the story for students at secondary modern and high school level is far different.
This summer, Plaid researchers contacted schools across Wales to find out what engineering courses they offered. From 188 schools across all of Wales (excluding Powys, which did not respond), just 44 offer any sort of engineering qualification. That translates as just over 23% – less than one in four schools – offering engineering. Worse, just three local authority areas – Caerphilly, Neath Port Talbot and Swansea (the last two are thankfully in my region) – offer engineering at A Level. This is crucial because most universities only accept BTEC students on special four-year foundation courses, meaning they have to spend another year in higher education – and who can afford that at present?
There are some provisos here. All of the local authority areas surveyed offer BTEC (including Coleg Powys), although only three again – Neath Port Talbot, Swansea and the Vale of Glamorgan – offer the subject at A Level.
Four of the local authority areas do not offer engineering at all, either at GCSE equivalent level or at year 12 and 13. That Blaenau Gwent, once home to the mighty Ebbw Vale steelworks, should have no provision here, joining Torfaen and Gwynedd, is extremely surprising. But that Cardiff, our capital and the pre-eminent driver region in the country, should also find itself in the same bracket seems incredible.
Although manufacturing as a proportion of Welsh GDP has fallen from around 38% in 1995 to just 17% some 12 years later and currently stands at around 11%, it is still ever so slightly up on the UK average and, of the six sectors originally identified by the Welsh Government that will be supported as part of the Economic Renewal Programme, four of them require engineers.
When I learned that Cardiff was not offering engineering as an A Level, I asked the First Minister for his opinion, and also asked what the Welsh Government was doing to ensure that Swansea University, which continues to grow its reputation for engineering excellence, would remain popular with Welsh students. He replied that design and technology, along with maths and physics, were often taken by engineers and still widely available across Wales. He mentioned the Education Engineering Scheme, arguing that schemes like it had been successful in encouraging students, before admitting: “In years gone by, we know that there has been a difficulty in attracting students to study the subject”.
To be fair, the Welsh Government does offer a well-respected service for apprenticeships. But I think it could be doing a whole lot more.
To begin with, schemes are just that. They are bolt-ons to the education system. If Wales wants to compete in the 21st Century, if it wants China and other emerging economies to come to this country for R&D and other expertise, it needs engineering and other technical skills written into the country’s educational DNA. To do that, it needs to be getting students interested in the subject well before, and not after, they study for GCSEs.
Good maths and physics remain the cornerstone of engineering, and students can begin an engineering degree with A Levels in those subjects and no previous engineering experience. However, any student who applies for a place with maths, physics and engineering at A Level is going to do better than having the first two and something unrelated.
And it is well documented that Wales, along with other parts of the UK, have an issue in getting young people interested in science and maths. The cry we often hear (and probably said at some point ourselves) is: “What’s the point of all this?” But more complex areas of GCSE level mathematics and physics such as quadratics and dynamics have real world applications in engineering. Greater interest in the former could be engendered through a greater interest in the latter. If we can get our students to live and breathe engineering, the more abstract elements should take care of themselves.
Lastly, while the apprenticeship route remains as solid as it always has been, with former apprentices rising to the very top of multi-nationals like British Aerospace, can we do more for our school leavers than sending them in cold to the system, with no previous experience? If they arrive at BTEC 2 level, they can begin making a contribution to a business almost straight away. With business owners commonly lamenting the quality of school leavers, what could this do for the Welsh economy if it were replicated across the country?
If engineering is one of the keys to a prosperous future for Wales, then education is the key to producing successful engineers. If the Welsh Government is serious about this, there can be no bolt-ons. It must sit at the heart of the education system, and for that schools must offer more than they are at present.
- This piece first appeared on Walesbusiness.