Nurturing the engineers of tomorrow, today

Author : Mike England, Managing Director of RS Components for Northern Europe

17 August 2017

The skills shortage that faces the UK engineering sector is widely recognised. The issue is not new, but it is one that is escalating and whose impact is potentially far-reaching.

This article originally appeared in the July 2017 issue of Electronic Product Design & Test; to view the digital edition, click here – and to register to receive your own printed copy, click here.

With the rapid and rising emergence of new technologies, the development of which relies heavily on engineering skills, addressing the skills shortage is now more urgent than ever before. This article from RS Components explores how distributors can help.

To be effective, the approach to the skills gap needs to be collaborative: engineering sector employers, industry organisations, educators and government all need to work together – and while this is happening to an extent, it must be more cohesive and aggressive if a real step change is to be achieved in the uptake of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects.

As part of this mix, distributors can play a significant role in influencing change. By engaging and inspiring students from a young age about the wide and varied possibilities of a career in engineering, organisations large and small can realise their potential: to positively influence the uptake of engineering in order to help reverse and prevent the future skills gap in STEM subjects. Success in this endeavour will be vital to the future of UK engineering.

Distributors, in their role of bringing the latest products to customers – as well as information on technologies and possible applications – have perhaps even greater potential to inspire young people. In fact, distributors are often at the forefront of new technologies, and need to use this unique position to best effect, in order to play their part in inspiring tomorrow’s engineers.

Supporting innovation

Whilst the mission of tackling the engineering skills shortage has been a cause close to our hearts at RS for many years – with the introduction of a variety of initiatives dedicated to supporting innovation both in industry and at grass roots level – activity has been significantly escalated in recent years.

The DesignSpark website, which has been providing engineers with free electronics and mechanical design tools and resources since its inception in 2011, was one of RS Components’ first major initiatives to encourage innovation development, education and sharing.

In 2016, the introduction of RS Live Innovation in Motion – a bespoke 35-tonne truck featuring interactive display zones – offered a highly engaging way for schoolchildren to learn about engineering and technology, through various demonstrations and hands-on activities.

The truck has been touring academic organisations in the UK since its launch, and has welcomed more than 500 students on board in its first year of operation alone. And its success is ongoing: since last September, there have been over 50 new requests to visit the truck from educational establishments.

Recruiting STEM ambassadors

Young engineers can also play a huge role in inspiring the next generation of engineers by becoming STEM Ambassadors and providing real-life case studies for young students considering a career in engineering. However, distributors can support in this area, too.

Because of the vast product and application knowledge acquired working closely with the developers, manufacturers and suppliers of the latest technology, distributors have many innovators and technology enthusiasts with deep engineering knowledge to share within their own organisation – and can help recruit these resources as STEM Ambassadors to assist in the mission to inspire. RS recently formed a partnership with STEM Learning, the largest provider of STEM education and careers support to schools, colleges and other groups working with young people across the UK, to create another channel through which to combat the skills shortage.

RS recently held a STEM Ambassador recruitment day at its Corby headquarters, to which it invited employees from RS branches and offices located all around the country.

The day was a huge success and led to RS signing up more than 70 volunteers to become STEM Ambassadors. The initiative will see a series of workshops developed and delivered to schoolchildren aged 11 to 16, incorporating the latest technologies including Raspberry Pi, Arduino, Internet of Things technology, 3D printing and robotics.

Championing diversity in engineering

In addition to a low overall uptake of STEM subjects, women are also significantly under-represented in the engineering sector. For the industry to thrive and grow, the talent pool must be widened to enable us to adapt to the challenges of the future. This includes attracting more females to the industry, but also considering people of all backgrounds and cultures to ensure a truly diverse employee base. If there is to be any hope of filling the skills shortages in the future, we must reach out to everyone to get them to consider a career in engineering.

The Women’s Engineering Society set up National Women in Engineering Day in 2014, in celebration of its 95th anniversary. The event has gathered so much momentum over the last four years that in 2017, it was extended in scope into an international event.

RS supported International Women in Engineering Day in 2017, collaborating with the University of Northampton to host an event called ‘Engineering isn’t just for blokes’. This was attended by more than 100 female secondary school students from years 7 to 9, who engaged in a range of activities: workshops delivered by SATRA, Nissan, the Army Reserves and RS Components via its Innovation in Motion truck.

The girls were given the opportunity to network with university staff and students to explore the wide range of engineering career opportunities. Christine Powley Williams from SATRA, who is also an alumni of the University and Britain’s first female manager in the tannery industry, and Marianne Culver, President of RS Global, both presented on the role of women in engineering. The expansion of this awareness day and the success and reach it has generated so far is encouraging: it proves that – with enough drive behind a cause – great results can be achieved.

So, whilst making a real difference to STEM subjects’ uptake, and helping to safeguard the future of UK engineering, falls to a variety of organisations across industry, academia and government, distributors can and certainly should do their bit to support the mission, too.

Whether generating new initiatives, or supporting existing ones, no effort should be considered too small in such a crucial task. Indeed, as distribution relies on the UK engineering sector for its business, we must make it a priority to help this vital mission.

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