Local partnerships between schools, businesses, professional bodies and the local LEP are needed to help solve the skills shortage crisis in the digital and engineering sectors. This was the major conclusion of the second of four round table discussions that form part of the RSA Fellowship’s initiative entitled “Northern Powerhouse: where do market towns fit in”.
The second round table discussion of the RSA Fellowship’s Market Town Initiative took place in Frodsham on the 9th November.
Frodsham is a market town of about 10,000 people situated on the M56 between Manchester and Chester. In the later part of the 20th Century, employment was dominated by industrial giants including ICI, Shell and BICC. These companies have now gone and many Frodsham residents find employment in the Northern Powerhouse cities that are a long commute away.
However there are three significant developments on the town’s doorsteps: the established and growing Sci-Tech at Daresbury, the new Thornton Science Park and what is billed as UK’s largest recovery park at Ince.
What skills are in short supply and why?
At least from a local point of view, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) is too general a term when talking about skills shortages. We heard that recently an advertisement for a pure scientist produced 600 applications but some engineering apprenticeships could not be filled.
The specific shortages are currently in all branches of engineering including the technical as opposed to creative digital sector.
Employers were also concerned that students do not leave school with employability skills like working in a team, confidence, leadership and communication. Overall there was a concern about students’ competence in the workplace.
These issues are not new so why have things not improved?
Overall society’s attitude to engineers has not changed much. Language is important. We continue to misuse and de-value words like engineer and apprentice and this is unlikely to change. So engineers could perhaps start talking about what they do rather than what they are: I invent, I design, I make etc.
Are engineers paid enough? Is “short supply” another way of saying “they are not paying enough”.
However by the time students are making career decisions, many barriers have been raised to stop them pursuing routes to engineering careers. These routes are perceived as being more difficult or not as interesting or “cool” as other options. Peer pressure plays an important role that is not generally countered by access to inspirational adults and an understanding about how the world works.
During recent visits to local primary schools, when asked about career aspirations, children talked about being footballers, pop stars and hairdressers. Whilst anecdotal, this does illustrate the perceived situation.
There are many complex and complicating factors that come together when students are making choices before and at the time of selecting subject options. But we can address three factors that have been shown to be important when making career choices:
- Lifting the career knowledge base
- Developing employer links
- Developing transferable skills
Along the way inspiration may be found and definitely confidence is built for students to make informed choices.
Is it the school’s job?
Schools cannot do this alone.
Schools do what they think government wants them to do: currently the emphasis is on traditional subjects, measured by exams results in particular in English and Maths. There is a focus on added value and closing the gaps between the pupil premium cohort and the general population. Other groupings must not be forgotten either.
This is currently perceived as the essential work of a school.
Schools are faced with financial pressures in the guise of a continuous real drop, year on year, in income. They have to find money for National Insurance payments, wage rises and pension contributions that would previously been provided by the government. Over the last five years, budgets have been pared to the bone and so desirable activity like employability skills and career education cannot be given any priority.
In any case, schools do not have the skill base and resources to deliver on all three factors.
In the past, many large companies took responsibility to develop links with schools and expand the career knowledge base. This is no longer the case in the Frodsham area, with budgets tightened company outlooks are less paternalistic and in any case employment in SME enterprises is more prevalent.
However there was agreement that there is a will locally to help to address the issues. Given the three significant technology based business sites, it was agreed that a local solution should be sought and the case for Frodsham developing stronger links with City regions was less strong from an education and skills point of view at least.
Post Script In setting up the Careers and Enterprise Company, the government recognises that the changing world of work requires an ever deeper relationship between work and education.
In September 2015, the C&E Company has started to roll out a network of local Enterprise Advisers designed to provide “powerful, lasting connections between local businesses and the schools and colleges in the area.” Unfortunately Cheshire and Warrington LEP are not currently participating in the programme.
At an Enterprise workshop on the day after the Frodsham discussion, an Ofsted Inspector told us of a relevant survey that they are holding over the next few months. The survey is designed to gain evidence of the quality of career education and development of employability and personal financial skills in schools. The expectation is that activity in these areas will move from desirable to essential for schools that want to be designated as Outstanding.
Also since the discussion, I have also become aware of a number of RSA Fellowship initiatives that could improve career choice and employability. Clearly there is a need for some joined up activity. The time is right and the RSA Fellowship is well placed to play a part.
Please contact me if you would like to be involved: [email protected]