Industry must pay if it wants a skilled workforce

In last week’s New Scientist magazine is an article by Sir Alan Jones, chairman of the Sector Skills Council for Science, Engineering and Manufacturing Technologies (Semta).

Sir Alan complains that industry cannot find the high-calibre science graduates it needs. Actually, that’s not quite right. The problem is not a lack of science graduates, but rather a shortage of graduates who do not require on-the-job training.

Unless the skills gap is closed, many companies will be unable to grow, some will fail and jobs could be lost, says Sir Alan. His answer to the skills shortage is for industry to tell academia what skills it requires in graduate recruits, and for academia to train students appropriately.

I have a major problem with Semta’s analysis of the UK science and engineering skills base, and have written about this subject before.

There may well be too few young people opting to study science and engineering, but we have to ask ourselves why this is so. And we can start by looking at the state of the job market at entry level, together with wages, prospects and status. The figures indicate a small salary premium for science graduates, but it really isn’t much.

Science and engineering have become largely de-professionalised in the UK and elsewhere in Europe, and it is simply not an attractive career option for many. School students are instead opting to study subjects that will lead to jobs with better salaries and benefits, and a chance to move quickly into management positions.

Sir Alan appears to be arguing for universities and colleges to focus on more vocational science training. For example, he would prefer that science and engineering students be taught applied mathematics rather than pure. But that’s exactly what happens, and Sir Alan’s criticism of the syllabus is way off the mark.

My biggest problem with Sir Alan’s argument concerns what appears to be a call for universities to tailor their courses so that on-the-job training is not required. If that is what Sir Alan is saying, then he and his colleagues are demanding that the state subsidise industrial training.

Universities have a far wider role than employment training. They are there to teach students how to learn and develop for themselves, and thereby increase their employability. Universities must ensure that students are given detailed instruction in their chosen subjects, but not at the expense of breadth in the curriculum.

We have bachelors degrees in electrical engineering and chemistry, but it would not be appropriate for universities to encourage students to study only polymer electronics or colloidal chemistry. Even if some industries might like to have such highly-focused graduates.

Universities have a duty of educational care toward their customers, and part of this involves preparing students for a working life that requires multiple skills, and mature, rounded personalities. Training does not end with university graduation, but is a continuing process. Instead of going cap-in-hand to the state, industry should invest more in its workforce, and fund adequate job training.