Andy Osborn, Head of Engineering at UTC Central Bedfordshire

Ask any kid what they’d like to do when they grow up and the chances are the response you’ll get will be astronaut, firefighter or popstar. Little do they know the full spectrum of career choices out there, specifically within the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) fields.

In fact, if you want to be an astronaut, it’s advised that you gain a bachelor’s degree in Civil or Aerospace Engineering. But what’s on offer for students prior to higher education to get them suitably engaged in such studies?

Thankfully, there are now colleges devoted to steering the younger generation towards more technical subjects. UTCs or University Technical Colleges provide 14-18 year olds with the knowledge and hands-on training they’ll need in today’s UK industry. But with little government funding, marketing budget and a desperate need for more support from local universities and businesses, are UTCs being fairly recognised for the difference that they’re making to filling the UK skills gap? And could the difference be even greater if there was more collaboration?

We interviewed Andy Osborn, Head of Engineering at UTC Central Bedfordshire, for his perspective.

Tell us a bit about the UTC Central Bedfordshire.
Firstly, let’s get to grips with what a UTC is because not many people are aware of what they actually are. UTCs teach students aged between 14 and 18 years a number of mandatory GCSEs; however, instead of accompanying these with humanities, languages or art, they study whatever the UTC specialises in, typically technical and scientific subjects. We specialise in mechatronics, manufacturing and automation.

How else are UTCs different from normal secondary schools? What do they offer that normal state schools don’t?
They place emphasis on one area of study. Often students like UTCs because they offer specialist courses taught by teachers who specialise in that field. Similar to a university, no-one teaches outside of their area, whereas at a high school, a humanities teacher may also teach English – there’s a fair bit more juggling involved. Students also enjoy the excellent resources we have. At UTC Central Bedfordshire, we work with local employers to find resources such as PLCs, HMIs, robots and conveyor belt systems to really give the students some context for what they’re learning. The upshot is that they receive the training they’ll need to take them directly into an engineering role.

Local businesses seem to be supportive then?
Local employers provide their time in terms of training the staff to use the equipment correctly in order to effectively teach. The payback for supporting businesses is that it raises the talent pool in their sector. They can come and select the brightest students and fast track those who demonstrate the highest skill set to a job within their business. Lockheed Martin, a global aerospace company, and MJS Group, a medical electronic devices company, are two local companies we’re partnered with. They come in to see the students and educate them about typical roles at their companies, send previous apprentices in to present what can be achieved and set projects for the students to sink their teeth into – projects which reflect the typical applications they would have to deal with on the job.

Tell me a bit about your role as Head of Engineering.
Now you’re asking! As an engineering college, my role encompasses everything from employer engagement through to setting and certifying the curriculum, as well as ensuring the offer is kept fresh and relevant to satisfy the perceived local need. Of course I also teach as well, specifically sought after skills such as PLC programming, HMI and robotics engineering.

What kind of equipment do you have at the college to aid the students in their courses?
A large industrial robot, two table top robots, an industrial conveyor system and PLC Lab. We’d like to have a lot more but UTCs rely on industrial partners for donations as we simply don’t have the budget to afford the various types of equipment which would help us. I spoke with one robot supplier and they gave a price which was miles out of our range. In the end I went to a second hand refurbishers who have donated a robot so we could promote the technology in that area. Most robot manufacturers and automation companies are looking for robot programmers. If we had the equipment in place to train then this would feed back into the vacancies in robot engineering.

I think that most UK businesses need an appreciation of the bigger picture. If a student trains using equipment manufactured by a particular company, then that’s what the student will know when they go into the workplace. Then when they’re asked, ‘What HMI should we be using?” naturally they’re going to recommend the manufacturer that they trained with. The challenge is getting people to see that in the short term.

A joint venture between Unipart and Coventry University, the Institute of Advanced Manufacturing is a great example of what’s possible when business and education work together.

Have you any examples of how Central Bedfordshire UTC has developed students into workplaces or universities where they are likely to continue on a STEM career path?
We’ve never had anyone leave here NEET. But don’t worry, we don’t mean our students leave here looking like a scruff, NEET stands ‘Not in employment, education or training.’ Thirty percent of the year group about to leave have university offers, thirty percent have apprenticeships approved and the others are going through the university or apprenticeship selection process, all still within the STEM field.

In your opinion, are UTCs valued enough by the government in light of the STEM gap?
No. Coming back to my first point – nobody really knows what UTCs are. One of our main battles is marketing to the public. Yet once the students come through the door the conversion rate is as high as 75%. Students see the resources and if they want to study engineering they stay.
It’s difficult to persuade people to come out of the mainstream education sector. However, normal colleges and sixth forms won’t have the facilities for STEM subjects that UTCs do. If you want to study plumbing, woodwork, motor mechanics, electrical installation etc. then yes, I’d advise attending a regular college but if students want to engage in a technical specialism, then a UTC is the best place for them.

But are there enough apprenticeship schemes?
There are a lot more apprenticeship schemes than there were ten years ago when I first started teaching. The college had two engineering apprentices, nowadays it has around 100. Employers have recognised they have an ageing workforce, so they are coming to UTCs and further education colleges to source their employees. I’m a bit concerned about how the Apprenticeship Levy will change things though. Apprenticeships used to be fully funded by the government with no cost to the employer. Now there’s a cost which has unsettled things, and the exact nature of that cost to the employer is still not finalised. Apprenticeship schemes are also popular for micro-businesses and SMEs, and the worry is that any funding changes may make them no longer viable for this size of company.

How do you think careers in STEM are perceived by the younger generation? Is the stereotype changing in any way?
The students don’t really know what engineering is when they come, there’s still a typical ‘oily rags’ perception. There needs to be an overall change in the perception of where a career in engineering could lead. Engineering isn’t just in a workshop working on metal or wood, although these are still valuable skills. There’s a plethora of engineering roles out there from nanotechnology right through to aerospace, so what students need is a detailed explanation of the different sectors. The exciting thing about engineering today is that there are new roles being created all the time. At UTC Central Bedfordshire we’re educating students for jobs that don’t exist yet. We provide the underpinning knowledge that will secure them a job in the future. However, we do rely on local industry to keep us abreast of their technological needs.

As part of the #EngineeringFacelift campaign, we aim to spread the message about just how broad the spectrum of career opportunities there are for both men and women within the engineering sector.
The educational awareness needs to come through a collaborative effort. Employers are always looking for recruitment opportunities. It makes sense for businesses to go into a school with a working example of what they do. Imagine taking a working robot into a school hall – the students would become hooked. Then as UTCs we can go in after and say “Remember when such and such company came in, this is how you could work with that equipment every day when you’re older.”

Do British parents also have a role to play in negative connotations of STEM careers?
The difficulty with most UK parents is that they also latch on to the ‘oily rag’ idea because they don’t fully understand what engineering is – again it comes back to education and spreading the message. Often engineering students tend to come from engineering parents. I’m not being sexist, but often the dads are the engineers, and they have more appreciation of what we do. Occasionally our students have mothers in STEM roles, but this is far less common.

This leads in nicely to our next question. In terms of gender roles, do you feel that girls are encouraged to pursue different paths?
Since I started teaching engineering 10 years ago the percentage hasn’t changed, which is a shame. There are 80 students at UTC Central Bedfordshire, 4 of whom are female. However I will say that the female students are always very good, perhaps they have to fight a lot harder to compete. Employers are always on the lookout for female engineers to act as ambassadors for their company. Again, it could come back to the common perception of engineering, and family background.

What extra-curricular activities could motivate young children to consider STEM as a career later in life?
I know HTML coding is now part of the national curriculum, perhaps this could be developed into an application based activity. Rather than just watching graphics move on a screen, actually making a piece of equipment do something. There’s plently of accessible, affordable kit available such as the Micro:Bit, RaspberryPi and Arduino. The important thing is to give the students freedom to make something – it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t work – giving young people the space to have that creativity will inspire them to think more about how the world around them has been made.

Do you have any advice for any young people who are keen to become engineers?
Find out as much as you can about engineering and think big about where it could take you. Consider that UK industry has to bring the workforce over from abroad and pay them silly money because there are no local skills available. With a qualification in engineering you’re guaranteed a job and it can be just as lucrative a career path as medicine or law and certainly a more realistic one than being a pop star! There’s also a lot of flexibility – start researching the many different engineering roles out there and you’ll soon discover how varied, exciting and progressive modern industry is.

I know a young person who may be interested in attending a UTC. How would they go about applying?
Students can join a UTC in Year 10 or Year 12. The first step is to attend a UTC open day or event to get a feel for the school and its courses. You can find your local UTC and what its specialisms are here but I’ve also provided a full list of all of the UTCS nationwide below. Once you’ve decided upon the right UTC for you, application is as simple as visiting the website, downloading and filling in an application form and sending it back to us via email.

What are your thoughts? Are you a parent who feels that there’s not enough emphasis on STEM careers in secondary education? Or are you a UK business that feels the government should be doing more to help education and industry work together? Get in touch by clicking the Twitter button below or tweet using the hashtag #EngineeringFacelift.