University-industry relationships key to developing future generations of engineers

By Professor Gary Hawley, Executive Director of IAAPS and Dean of the Faculty of Engineering and Design

The UK government announced 2018 to be the Year of Engineering, a campaign to celebrate the world of engineering while inspiring the next generation of engineers. Celebrations aside, the UK engineering sector is facing a significant skills shortage, with an estimated 186,000 new skilled recruits needed each year until 2024 to address this shortage. But whose responsibility is it to ensure there is a steady stream of aspiring engineers who are going to help boost the UK’s engineering capabilities? Government? Industry? Schools? Universities? The answer is all of the above.

While it is impossible to speak on behalf of the different stakeholders responsible for the future success of UK engineering, as Dean of the Faculty of Engineering & Design at the University of Bath, I am clear on how I see the role of universities in this mission. In their 2017 report, Engineering UK put the annual shortfall of graduate engineers at 20,000 while the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) revealed in a report that up to 62% of engineering employers said that graduates cannot offer the right skills. Currently, engineering is not taught as a core subject in primary and secondary schools so it is the job of the universities to ensure their engineering students have acquired the right knowledge, skills and experience by the time they graduate. And it is the relationship between universities and industry that is crucial in making certain the engineering sector is receiving a constant flow of inspired, skilled and knowledgeable young engineers.

Within the Engineering Faculty at Bath, students have the option to undertake a year-long placement with industry both in the UK and overseas. Some 65% of students will take a placement year. A survey conducted recently on returning students from their year-long placement showed that 74% of employers would welcome them back as employees. Students complete placements at companies such as Airbus, BuroHappold, Dyson, Procter & Gamble, Rolls Royce Motor Cars, Transport for London, McLaren, Jaguar Land Rover and Unilever to name just a few and over the past few years we have noticed more and more students opting for placements at SMEs. Working closely with industry to identify the types of skills and people they need is imperative to ensure placements are mutually beneficial to both the students and businesses.

My philosophy as Dean in the academic training and development of young people is to continually emphasise that ‘engineers need to engineer things’ and this cannot be done in completeness from behind a PC screen.

The university’s student electric racing car team – Team Bath Racing Electric –  competed for the first time in China at the Formula Student Electric China. TBRe arrived not only as the top ranked UK electric team but the first and only UK team to compete at this event. The Formula Student competition is a fantastic competition which challenges engineering students to build upon what they have learnt from their academic studies and apply it to real-life engineering by designing, building and testing a racing car and to compete against the very best on the Formula Student circuit. This process requires the students to not only understand the engineering elements under their responsibility but also the integrated system aspects that will result in the assembly of an entire vehicle. The soft skills development includes team work, coordinated project management, systems thinking, individual leadership and responsibility. In other words, all the necessary skills that are required of future engineers. These skills cannot be taught effectively in a classroom, they have to be nurtured in an environment that promotes them and this activity is perfect to realise these skills.

The experience our TBRe students gained from competing in China was invaluable, much of which has been made possible by the generosity of their lead sponsor Shanghai Automotive Industry Cooperation (SAIC) Motor UK Technical Centre. The students capitalised on the opportunity to work with and learn from the SAIC engineers and to refine their electric racing car. Furthermore, this ongoing close-working relationship with industry is bearing fruit, with TBRe graduate Will Minter-Kemp having secured a full-time role at SAIC following graduation last year. In fact, this university-industry relationship is what makes for the type of engineering graduate that is much needed by industry. Our Team Bath Racing brand has been in existence for 20 years now and features our formula combustion team ranked in the top 10 in the world out of 500 teams, our drones team which won the IMechE national UK event last year and now TBRe, the top UK electric team this year. We also have a Team Bath Racing TT Zero Race Bike that competes at the Isle of Man races. These competition teams allow students to develop more quickly than the classroom could ever achieve, and they bring alive the passion for everything engineering. It is down to everyone to invest in the future of engineering, ensuring we are inspiring, educating and retaining the country’s next generation of engineers.