Rethinking industry attitudes

Nick Roberts | 22 Jul 2015 | Comments

For anybody expecting billions of pounds of new infrastructure spending to be announced in the Chancellor’s Summer Budget they will have been disappointed as it was barely mentioned. But in a budget which was focused more on how to balance the books we perhaps shouldn’t be too disappointed.

However, there were two particular government policies which should make us all sit up and take note. The aspiration to replace student maintenance grants in favour of loans and the introduction of an apprenticeship levy for large businesses could be as industry defining for our future as the transport and energy mega projects in the National Infrastructure Plan.

We all need a steady flow of young people to join our industry in order to deliver the projects which are going to enrich lives and prosperity in the coming decades. There are plenty of predictions that this flow will fall short of the numbers we need to sustain our industry and if the cost of getting a degree amplifies this shortage further then we will need to rethink how we are going to secure the next generation of designers and engineers.

I think we have to be particularly mindful of the impact that replacing grants with loans could have on attracting talented young people from a wide variety of backgrounds who perhaps don’t have the same opportunities to go through the higher education route. This is something which we are acutely aware of at Atkins which is why we’ve just launched the ‘Pathways To Engineering’ scheme in partnership with Citizens UK to provide engineering work experience, training and support for young people, parents and teachers from schools in East London. During the pilot programme we hosted 20 interns, eight of who are now working for us full time. It would have been a travesty if these stars of the future like these hadn’t had an opportunity to shine.

We saw from the election campaign that all the main political parties championed apprenticeships and the decision to apply a levy to large companies is a signal of the government’s determination to meet its manifesto promises. I understand that all businesses have a responsibility to training and development and opening up career opportunities for young people, but I worry for those who end up at companies that are driven to take on apprentices by financial penalties as there is a world of difference in organisational attitude and design in wanting to and having to take on apprentices. Hopefully medium and small companies will feel they can play their part in training the next generation, but not to their cost, to their benefit.

The spirit of an apprenticeship is to learn a skill or craft from a master in their field. Potentially apprentices benefit more from access to these experts and the latest developments in our industry than graduates who learn from academics. As the prominence of apprenticeships grows in our industry we need to do more to make sure that career opportunities for apprentices are equal to those of graduates. For me this means taking a more flexible approach to chartership and addressing the misconceptions that an apprenticeship is somehow a lesser career option. If we can achieve this we will not only make our industry more open to a wider variety of people, we can truly create a better future for us all.

This article original appeared in Infrastructure Intelligence and is reproduced here with permission.