The A-bomb has landed

Written by: Tim Fryer | Published:

Today is A-level results day - a day tens of thousands of school leavers will discover what is going to be their first formal step up the ladder to a career in engineering. Universities have had restrictions on student numbers removed and we are also entering a period when numbers of 18 year olds is on the decline, so there is expected to be something of a clamour in the race to sign up students in all subjects.

Research just released from the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) indicates that a degree is still worth it. The fortunes of students from the 80s were compared to those from the 90s and it showed graduate job numbers increased and pay differential compared to non graduates has been maintained, despite a doubling in student numbers at the time. Since then student numbers have increased by a further 170,000 to 424,000 university places being offered today (up 3% on last year). At some point this is going to stop paying dividends, both for the country and the individual. If looked at as one collective body, at some point it seems inevitable that the degree label will be devalued and the improved salaries will not counter the tuition fee related debts.

If such a trend emerges, engineering should be resilient to it. The number of graduates produced in engineering still hovers below 50,000 when twice that number is needed to provide growth and replenish stocks from an aging workforce.

So why is this? Schoolchildren clearly are happy enough with the idea of being students and are not put off by consequential indebtedness. Equally, the Government continues to support apprenticeship programmes which can be a great way for companies to train the staff that they need and for budding engineers to enter the industry and get qualifications, including degrees, while getting paid and gaining experience.

The simple answer, I unfortunately believe, is that engineering is not easy. I’m not saying that arts and humanities are easy, but there is little responsibility in such disciplines. An engineer needs to know his or her stuff, because they will be designing or making things in the future – things that they are responsible for and must work - and it takes graft to get to there.

That graft includes doing the engineering related subjects at school - maths, physics and design technology - which are also not easy, but the results released today show that numbers in all three (i.e. those that passed A levels) are down this year.

Fortunately, that 50,000 student intake understand this and they understand it is part of the joy of creating engineering solutions. Sadly there may be another 50,000 or more out there who don’t. Is that their fault? Or are we as an industry still struggling to communicate the message to school children that engineering is invaluable and enjoyable?


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