Skills – How do we leave our legacy?

John MoorFeatured, News

Degree Apprenticeships-infoNo subject unites this industry as strongly as “Skills”. Everyone has concerns that we’re an ageing workforce, not attracting the brightest and best young kids, not being seen as an attractive career etc. Personally, I believe that we can overcome much of our cost disadvantage against low-cost regions by building on our legacy of engineering skills; there’s no point in having 25% cheaper labour if you can’t deliver a new design or develop a new product on time and on budget. However, passing our engineering competence to new generations is not easy and there are significant issues to address.
Working & Investing Together
NMI gives a platform for companies to work together on challenges and opportunities that go beyond individual company boundaries. When we started the UK Electronic Skills Foundation in response to member concerns, we were sowing the seeds of a major new initiative that could unite the industry. Five years down the line and UKESF has progressed significantly; hundreds of school children have undertaken projects, with several hundred more attending UKESF Summer Schools and around £1m invested by participating companies in industrial placements for undergraduates.
Today, UKESF has around 40 participating companies and those that participate, large and small, do two things:
1. They put their money where their mouths are, and
2. They are prepared to work together, often with close competitors in the market, with a realisation that we are stronger together.
Their success with developing some of the stars of tomorrow is testament that, for them, their investment is working. However, there are thousands of companies out there; collectively we all could and should be doing much better. For some, its lack of awareness or apathy; for others it a case of caring about skills but not feeling the investment is available; others do their own thing in a local capacity – I commend their efforts but they miss the opportunity to develop wider awareness and exert influence over young people, particularly in schools.
As an industry, we’ve worked wonders in miniaturisation and increasing functionality to the extent that our technology is universally hidden behind the face of a smartphone or tablet; built-in to an electric toothbrush or hidden below the bonnet of our cars. This is the modern miracle that is the electronics industry but it comes with a price – that the average school child, and I would assert most teachers, have no appreciation of the technology that’s designed, developed and/or manufactured here.
I visit schools regularly and almost no-one is remotely aware of the companies that develop the technology that powers and connects the smart phones that are such a big part of their daily lives.
So, our technology is invisible, and, by and large, our industry seems incredibly challenged to jointly invest in building awareness our capabilities and influencing perceptions of good careers.
Last, but not least, we have so many sites here that are outposts of global corporations and seem to be victims of extreme constraints on anything that costs money. I’m eternally grateful for investment in NMI but, for some, even for those with significant budgets, financial and headcount controls impact the ability to hire any young people at all; hiring requisitions relate to immediate improvements in performance or output and making long-term investment in skills seems out of the question. What would be the point of a major initiative to change perceptions of young people if we’re ultimately not able to recruit any of them?
Grasping Opportunities – Trailblazer Apprenticeships (England only)
Despite these difficulties, the role of NMI is to continually work with our members to understand needs, develop opportunities and do our utmost to provoke an industry response. Trailblazer Apprenticeships have been the most recent.
Many already acknowledge the instrumental role played by NMI in establishing ESCO as an Industry Council with Ministerial co-chairing indicating Government support; currently very ably provided by Baroness Neville-Rolfe, Minister for Intellectual Property. Working with our industry association partners in ESCO, we connected to the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) –specifically those dealing with skills policy. They have been delighted with the tremendous progress in developing new “Trailblazer” apprenticeships – 2 million since the Government came to power in 2010!  Given the opportunity to provide input, our message was clear: participation from the electronic systems community was going to be limited by Trailblazers not extending to higher levels of educational attainment; degree-level minimum. We were not alone in this message – someone listened and in autumn 2014, Trailblazers were extended to the level of degree (L6) and Master’s Degree (L7).
Working through ESCO, and with GAMBICA in particular, we agreed to the next submission deadline of February 2015. This was an incredibly tight deadline but as of today, March 11th, we officially received news that the Level 6 Trailblazer Standard has been approved by BIS.
Driven by the desire to simplify apprenticeships, a 2-page description for each job title needed to be produced. We wanted to maintain maximum flexibility for employers and settled on the title of a “Graduate Embedded Electronic Systems Design and Development Engineer”. You can read the standard here but we believe it covers a skill-set that would be expected from any Electronic Engineering Degree graduate and allows employers to develop the interests and skills of a young person to result in a graduate that a) really hits the ground running and b) shows great loyalty to the business who has stuck with the apprentice since leaving school.
Changing Perceptions
I hear lots of talk about negative perceptions of the term “apprentice”. It will not be for everyone but my own straw poll of UKESF Scholars has indicated that the chance to actually be employed from leaving school; achieving a high-calibre degree (certified to IET standards) combined with regular periods of building practical experience and, last but not least, of having university fees paid and graduating without debt to an almost certain job, all add up to a compelling proposition for many who would probably have previously considered “an apprenticeship” as a step below a graduate engineer. This Trailblazer, will go a long way to change those ill-founded perceptions.
Public and Private Sector Co-investment
In order to induce support from industry; government will commit £2 of public funding for every £1 spent on Apprentice Training by industry (including university fees) up to a maximum of £18,000 for a large company and £29,000 for an SME.  We hope that level of support will attract many of you to invest in a new wave of bright, articulate and technically gifted young people joining our industry.
Next Steps
There is still work to do before final approval and should you want to provide input to Assessment and Learning Plans then simply contact [email protected]. Most of all however, we need you to consider employing an Apprentice now:
• Start talking to local schools or universities to identify potential candidates
• Let NMI know so that we can help find candidates and start to build our understanding of demand.
“Let’s beat apathy and get some momentum behind this initiative now.”

Article written by Dr. Derek Boyd, CEO NMI