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The development of engineering talent is in our hands

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James Richards, engineering capability manager at Network Rail, encourages employers to run ‘experience of industry’ programmes to enable young people to gain insights into engineering careers


My role as engineering capability manager at Network Rail involves a certain amount of discernment of the future to identify the constraints to the capacity of the business in years to come. There is one area, however, in which a crystal ball is entirely unnecessary; the problem of engineering skills shortages is already present across the engineering sector and there is no sign of the problem abating.

Approaches to bridging this gap are wide and varied and include an array of structured learning and development programmes. All these solutions have their elements of promise and their fair share of challenges, but there is another approach that I believe the engineering industry needs to focus on and that involves the early engagement of young people in education to showcase the wide range of exciting engineering careers in the railway.

James Richards, far right, and the Fast Trackers delivery team.
James Richards, far right, and the Fast Trackers delivery team.

Engineering in the cultural space

There is a great deal of competition for the attention of young people. Every day on television and social media they see examples of other career paths: acting, journalism, music, sports, TV presenting, arts, technology, medicine – all much more readily visible than our own specialism. It is for those representing our industry to consider how best to project engineering in the cultural space within which young people operate, but I am increasingly convinced that if we are going to ensure there are enough young people pursuing engineering careers to replace those who are retiring from the industry, let alone to cater for growth, then each individual engineer and engineering company must aim to make an impact on young people.

We can’t just assume that the young people we know are informed sufficiently about what engineers do. We must make the case, point out the engineering around them when they walk out the front door or into the school playground. I find that many young people have never considered the origin of all the engineering solutions around them. We have many opportunities to give them an insight into the engineering process.

We have to recognise that the world young people see is very different to the one young people saw even a generation ago. To influence them we need to grasp their perspectives and ideas and open channels to them understanding how these perspectives and ideas link with engineering careers.

Multiple engagements with young people are the route to achieving this, to enable them to build a picture over time of how engineering fits into the world around them and to see how their interests translate into engineering opportunities. Every rail engineering employer has a role in delivering the experiences of industry that will do this.

The July edition of RailStaff carried a feature on the FastTrackers programme that was designed to bring these messages to groups of young people, so I will point you to that article rather than repeat the details here. This is clearly a flagship scheme designed to accommodate large numbers of young people and with specific objectives in tackling diversity issues which often prevent certain groups of young people from dreaming of an engineering career. I am greatly encouraged by the response to it and excited about the way it can be developed in future years.

However, I sometimes fear that ‘big’ company programmes like this might put off smaller companies from playing their part in the ongoing task of telling our story to as many young people as possible, either by making them think that the work is already being done, or by suggesting that developing experiences of industry is a major task for which they don’t have the capacity. Both reactions are wrong.

Industrial Cadets

This issue was very much in my mind when, earlier in 2018, I accepted an invitation from HRH The Prince of Wales to become an Ambassador for Industrial Cadets, for which His Royal Highness is the Patron. Industrial Cadets accredits the sort of experiences of industry that I have been talking about and helps to make it easy for employers to establish their own experiences of industry, which suit their size and capacity of business. It does this by providing a framework of the type of skills development and project activities that a good experience of industry should contain and covers both programmes developed by experienced providers and for those which are developed in-house like FastTrackers.

The team at Industrial Cadets are very helpful in their application of the accreditation, and we found their insights very helpful when we decided to seek Industrial Cadet accreditation for the FastTrackers programme at gold level.

It meant that our programme was part of a nationally recognised structure of programmes, so a young person ‘graduating’ from FastTrackers would have an award which would enable other employers across the country to have a good idea of the depth and range of the experience they had with Network Rail and Mott MacDonald. Similarly, we could be sure that we had designed a scheme which fully achieved its objectives as Industrial Cadets gave us good benchmarks to measure against.

Experiences of industry don’t just help the young people by giving them engineering career insights, they help the company staff who devise and run the activities; (we have found FastTrackers an excellent proving ground for graduate engineers to gain competencies for chartered status); it can also influence teachers who are vital to the provision of careers guidance to young people so they also have a greater understanding of the benefits of, and routes into, engineering careers.

The development of experiences of industry that young people can undertake at regular points in their school careers is important ground work for the development of future engineering talent. It is so important that I think government would do well to look at additional imaginative ways of supporting employers in their delivery.

In this way, we could see a genuine partnership between education, industry and government in helping develop the much-needed engineers for tomorrow.

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