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Engineering for collaboration

Nick Roberts | 27 Mar 2015 | Comments

On the face of it, the relationships between businesses and universities are straight forward. Companies need young, talented people to boost their workforce and it is the role of universities to provide their students with the qualifications required.

In reality, the relationships run much deeper than a transactional recruitment drive. Firstly, the universities play a valuable role in providing the technical knowledge and many of the behaviours to do the job. However, there has to be collaboration with businesses to ensure that the skills and behaviours being taught are the ones that are needed in the workplace, especially in one that continuously evolves. Secondly, universities offer a unique research capability that not only provides valuable content for companies such as Atkins and our clients, but also provides students the opportunity to understand and address some real challenges.

As a design and engineering company, it is particularly important that these relationships work effectively. It’s widely acknowledged that the UK is not producing enough engineers and that too many graduates who have the qualifications are choosing to pursue other career paths. We recently published a report – The skills deficit: consequences and opportunities for UK infrastructure – to understand the consequences this shortage could have on the UK’s ability to deliver the infrastructure it needs to prosper. If people want a purpose in their careers, what could be better than providing the infrastructure which makes society tick and improves people’s lives?

We also looked at the opportunities to improve the current system and it is here we identified numerous accounts from business leaders, institutions and academics calling for greater collaboration and dialogue between business and universities.

It also got me thinking – are we doing enough to look at how the engineering industry can use some of the skills – such as information technology, coding or even some of those used in the film industry – which are more available to get over the shortage of traditional skills and deliver projects in a different way? Is there more we could do to help the transition of young people from university to workplace? This could be in the form of more senior engineers delivering modules for engineering students. Or more emphasis and opportunities for summer placements within industry, giving more young people access to the cold face of project work and delivery, helping shape their minds or their final years at university. No doubt there are a number of other solutions.

When it comes to research, universities are developing some of the country’s finest young minds but is the business community making the most of this resource? As an example, Atkins has signed an agreement with Heriot-Watt University to create a Centre of Excellence for High Speed Rail which aims to push the boundaries of railway track research beyond high speed into the realm of ultra high speed. Not only is this fascinating work, with 15,000 miles of high speed rail due to be created around the world in the coming years, it supports a real business opportunity.

I think that overall the goals of businesses and universities remain aligned but there are further benefits for us all of taking this to the next level and helping create a better future society.