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The skills we need for a better London

Phil R Davis | 13 Feb 2017 | Comments

It's an exciting time for STEM skills. There is an almost universal acceptance that we have a STEM skills shortage in the UK. Regardless of Brexit, we need to be better at 'growing our own' engineers and future thinkers as they will be critical to maintaining and growing our industrial output and making the Government's Industrial Strategy a reality.

Our 2015 report The Skills Deficit. Consequences and opportunities for UK infrastructure created by the national skills shortage explored the likely impact of prolonged STEM skills shortages in the transport, water, energy and digital infrastructure sectors. Two recent publications have brought this issue into even further focus: Sadiq Khan's ‘A City For All Londoners’ and the Government's Industrial Strategy.

In my role as Atkins' director of technical learning & development I need to be very aware of the factors that affect our corporate level of technical skills. I often use the analogy of a water tank, where the fluid level represents the collective skills of our people at any point in time. The level is increased as the tank is topped up by new entrants, apprentices and graduates; also by training colleagues. The fluid level diminishes when skills perish through technological advances and as colleagues retire. And to extend the analogy further, the tank becomes larger as we move into new capability areas - which may lower the fluid level, unless we are prepared!

So what are we doing to keep our skills tank topped up and how can we support the Mayor's plan?

Showing young people that STEM careers can be fulfilling and rewarding is a great start and our outreach programmes such as Pathways to Engineering and Love Plays seek to do just that in London. Young people can have mixed views about what a STEM career involves and requires from them. Providing contact with our professionals is one of the best ways to encourage, inform and dispel the myths. We have a particularly exciting story to tell about engineering design consultancy, part of the profession that is largely hidden from the public consciousness. So we're really keen to further collaborate with other STEM employers in London, for example through the Tomorrow's Engineers programme, to reach some of the schools as yet unsupported by our sectors.

Two years ago, I visited a school in east London to explore ways of supporting new maths and science teachers. During the visit, I was amazed to discover just how many students were fluent in another language, often from countries in the middle or far-east. In a global consultancy business such as ours, those language skills are highly valued in a professional engineer. My host was also excited to learn of this potential competitive advantage her pupils had in the employment stakes.

When it comes to applying for employment as an apprentice we find that many students are unaware of how to apply - and how to apply themselves to the application process. Our Pathways to Engineering programme aims to level the playing field in schools where STEM students may lack an awareness of how to present themselves to best effect when applying to a professional services employer. With our partner Citizens UK, we're keen to introduce other STEM employers and London schools to the programme and thereby reach out to further, as yet untapped, potential talent.

As a member of the Technician's Apprenticeship Consortium, Atkins has been involved with several Trailblazer apprenticeship programmes, developing new standards in areas related to engineering design consultancy. Presently we are collaborating in the creation of two new design engineering degree apprenticeships. On-the-job, vocational learning is a key aspect of any apprenticeship, so we want the Government to not only encourage recruitment of apprentices, but to make it easier for apprentices to be used on all projects, as their apprenticeship status can sometimes preclude them from working on major infrastructure projects.

We also need to continue to work at retaining skilled professionals as they near the end of their careers, through flexible working arrangements including 'zero hour' contracts that, when used responsibly and applied fairly, can work really well for both parties in these instances. We would like to see proactive support for flexible deployment of all our skilled professionals in public sector work so that we can bring a diverse range of talents to bear on the city's challenges.

Read Atkins’ full response to ‘A City For All Londoners’