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The government’s industrial strategy has reaffirmed its commitment to developing the technical, engineering and construction skills our country needs to maintain a competitive edge.

The strategy comes at a time when skills shortages in the STEM sector remains a significant concern for employers. A recent analysis of the opportunities and threats posed by Brexit, produced by the Royal Academy of Engineering, highlighted the need to maintain a supply of skilled labour set against current shortcomings. The academy’s president, Professor Dame Ann Dowling, rightly stated that this is a critical time for Britain’s engineering sector and educators and businesses must work more closely together than ever before if we are to close the skills gap.

The publication of the Sainsbury’s Review, and the planned development of Institutes of Technology and Apprenticeships, are also significant markers in our collective desire to raise the reputation and quality of technical routes in education. These efforts will go some way to attracting greater numbers of young people to develop the skills and knowledge our country needs.

At Activate Learning we have been working with learners and employers to design learning programmes which develop the technical and soft skills our employer – and industry – requires.

In the technology sector, this includes work at two University Technical Colleges – UTC Reading and UTC Oxfordshire – where employer partners advise on curriculum design, mentor students, provide project-based learning challenges and additional qualifications. In the last year this has included a challenge for students to redesign the dashboard of BMW’s flagship MINI and engineer new bridge crossings in association with Network Rail.

This approach can be equally found in our further education colleges, where teaching teams are partnering with employers in construction, engineering and IT to share skills and expertise and enrich the learning experience.

At City of Oxford College, a project with Laing O’Rourke has seen students proposing alternative uses for a unit in a city centre retail and leisure development. Teams were required to develop costed proposals, complete with Computer Animated Designs of their plans, before presenting back to a panel of employer representatives. A project with Skanska, which holds the county’s highways contract, involved students designing a new road junction which took into account peak traffic flows and pedestrian needs. This relationship has led to the Skanska team delivering further workshops on efficient project management – a core component of the company’s in-house training – to our full-time learners. Meanwhile, higher education students have been getting to grips with the realities of commercial development in a project supported by Beard Construction and inspired by a £5m office scheme.

With the number of university applicants at an all-time high and the number of students leaving school with the adequate STEM skills needed in the modern workplace at a worrying low, we believe that this partnership approach can help to fill the widening gap. These opportunities allow students to gain real insight into what employers expect, as well as developing essential, transferable skills.

As the government seeks to develop new Institutes of Technology as the flagships for technical education delivery, I would argue that the further education sector already offers the skills and infrastructure needed to realise the vision. Working with employers we can make the most of the investment to inspire more young people to follow careers in STEM industries, while widening access.

The proof of this approach will be seen as increasing numbers of learners move straight from education into employment with those companies they have been working alongside during their programmes. Not only will this benefit those at the starts of their careers, but also offer the industry the talent pipeline it needs to sustain growth.

Jon Adams, Executive Director, Activate Learning

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