Apprenticeships are particularly valuable in engineering and manufacturing where we face a shortfall of engineers. It has been estimated that, as a nation, by 2050, we will face a shortage of 36,800 engineers. But a supply of apprentices depends on a good grounding in the STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering and maths. However, these have been neglected disciplines.
The CBI annual skills report (Learning to grow, 2012) identified 42% of employers in the North East as having difficulties in recruiting STEM-skilled employees. There are a number of important initiatives underway to address this problem. Among these is the University Technology College, UTC initiative.
UTCs are government funded colleges, which will teach 14 to 18-year-olds, with an emphasis on STEM subjects, and with the involvement of local employers. The UTC South Durham, the region’s first UTC, will open its doors in September to students in its purpose-built site beside the new Hitachi train plant in Newton Aycliffe.
For UTC South Durham, which will focus on specialised manufacturing and engineering, University of Sunderland is the sponsor with Hitachi Rail Europe and Gestamp Tallent as founding business sponsors.
The man working to get everything ready for September is Tom Dower, 44, the college’s first principal and his background – in engineering, managing consulting and teaching – would seem to make him ideally suited to the role.
He worked for ICI on Teesside as a mechanical engineer for about five years before joining a London based management consultancy for which he worked in a number of different sectors from telecoms to retail and financial services. “I ended up working in banks, which I didn’t enjoy at all, so I retrained to be a teacher, and became a design and technology teacher in London,’’ he says. He moved up to the North East about 10 years ago and has been teaching since and his last role was as deputy head at Ashington High School.
“That combination of local industry, business understanding and teaching has set me up very well for this,’’ he adds. “This is a dream come true for me.’’ He has months to go before this dream becomes a reality but September will soon be upon us, so how are preparations for UTC South Durham coming along? He explains that the college is currently recruiting Year 10 14-year-olds and 16-year-olds for the sixth form. It needs a minimum of 70 in each year group with up to 120 in the first year.
“Recruitment’s going very well. We are more than half full in our sixth form already, with over 100 students signed up and committed. That’s very good progress for three months into recruitment.
“These have been recruited from 23 different schools across a really wide geography, it was always the intention of UTCs to be sub regional.’’ These first students come from as far apart as North Yorkshire and Tyneside.
“Students with that really strong focus on science, technology, engineering and maths are prepared to travel, that is the bottom line,’’ he says.
Recruitment to Year 12 is the easier part, as a lot of schools don’t have sixth forms, but for Year 10 students joining the UTC means leaving their current school and friends. As a consequence, Dower expects the Year 10 cohort “to be a fair bit smaller than Year 12 in the first year’’.
He adds: “I’ve been incredibly impressed by the quality of students who are signing up, by which I particularly mean the quality of thought they’ve put into what they want to do in the future. Our students are coming to join us for the right reasons.’’
As the year groups move up, the college will double in numbers until it reaches a total of 600 students. Of those recruited so far, only between 10% and 20% are girls. “It’s frustrating because I haven’t seen a job in industry which can’t be done just as well by a woman as by a man,’’ says Dower. “While it probably won’t reach 50:50 there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be at least 70:30 or 60:40, because the type of jobs that are out there in industry are high tech, intelligent jobs, not grunt work in greasy overalls.’’
He says that a lot of girls are put off engineering at school and shares the story of one girl who told a colleague: “It’s no wonder girls don’t go into engineering and STEM. It’s because you keep telling us that girls don’t go into engineering and STEM.’’
Clearly, parents are also a big influence on the career choices made by their children. “I think we are probably at our most cautious as parents when it comes to our children’s education and these children and their parents are signing up to something that isn’t finished, on an idea rather than anything they can really measure,’’ says Dower.
He explains that it’s the parents of the 14-year-olds who are thinking ahead for their offspring, whereas at 16 the process and choices are much more driven by the students, who are telling their parents what they want to do.
He believes that in the North East there is still an underlying understanding of the nature of engineering and the kind of careers it offers. “Publicity like SSI doesn’t help but there are still many more jobs being created than are being lost,’’ he says.
At the time of the interview, Dower has not recruited any teaching staff but is about to embark on the search for a deputy principal and then other staff. Ultimately there will be about 15 teaching staff and between eight and ten support staff. So far, he’s had more than 90 expressions of interest in jobs registered on the college website. He anticipates no problems in finding teachers.
“What we are creating is a school full of students who want to learn these particular subjects and have a real focus, which is a dream for a teacher of those subjects.’’
While A-Level students will be focused on STEM, all the college’s GCSE students will study subjects other than STEM, with humanities and languages provided as options. For some of these subjects the college will either appoint staff who can teach more than one or it will outsource.
The building, which will cost less than £10m, had a delayed start but is back on track to open on 5 September when term begins.
Dower pays tribute to the sponsors – University of Sunderland, Hitachi Rail Europe and Gestamp - for getting the project to this point. “In addition to that, we’ve got 30 or 40 companies involved that we are working with to design projects and placements and visits to develop a model of the skills that our young people need to work on.’’
This model of the so-called soft or workplace skills such as teamwork, attitude or self-management, will not only be used to give feedback to students about how well they are doing but also in the recruitment of staff.
“They are the same skills that teachers need to demonstrate to our students,’’ he explains.
The college will concentrate on STEM but Dower is keen to emphasise that this means a widening of opportunity for its students.
“It’s very important that we are not just recruiting engineers in a very narrow sense who might want to work for Hitachi and Gestamp Tallent, making trains and cars. For young people interested in those subjects we want to give them a really broad experience of lots of different companies that we are partnering with across lots of different sectors, which means that young people can really get a sense of the sort of roles and sectors that are open to them.
“At the moment they don’t know, they haven’t had those sorts of experiences.’’
After some debate it has been decided that the students will wear business clothes – grey suits and ties for the Year 10s and smart business wear for the older students and when they go out to companies they will wear what the company wears. Dower says: “It’s not going to feel like a school.’’