Apprenticeships

What do you think are the reasons behind the overall decline in engineering apprenticeship starts in recent years? We are particularly interested in understanding more about supply and demand.

What do you think are the reasons behind the overall decline in engineering apprenticeship starts in recent years? We are particularly interested in understanding more about supply and demand.

Image. It persists even now. In fact, the paper[1] that asks these questions has images of spanner turning. It’s so easy to pick royalty free pictures that pop-up from search engines searches. These images show mechanics in blue overalls. Don’t get me wrong, this is not the least bit disrespectful of spanner turning.

A deep cultural memory persists. It has multiple elements. You could say, in part, industrialisation, still conjures up images of dark satanic mills contrasted with grand country homes of a class of business owners. Basically, dirty, and clean as two key words.

The Victorians did a great deal to both elevate engineering personalities, like Brunel[2], but to hold them as different or apart from the upper middle-class society that the fortunate aspired to join. Those who forged the prosperity of the age had to work hard to be accepted in “society”.

Today, it makes no difference that’s it’s American, popular comedies like “The Big Bang Theory[3]” entertain us immensely but pocket the “nerd” as eccentric, peculiar and unfathomable. I admit this is attractive to a proportion of young people but maybe such shows create exclusivity rather than opening people’s eyes to possibilities.

Having Government Ministers standing=up can calling for Britan to become a version of Silicon Valley doesn’t help. Immediately, that signal is heard from those in authority, young people switch “off”. To boot, the image conquered up is a whole generation out of date. We have the Windows 95 generation telling the iPhone generation what’s the best direction to get to the 2030s.

Here’s a proposition – you must see yourself as an “engineer” to become an engineer. That can be said of a whole myriad of different professions. Each with a common stereotype. Look at it the other way. If you cant’t see yourself as a person who can shape the future, it isn’t likely you will choose engineering.

My observation is that we need to get away from too many images of activities. In other words, this is an engineer at work. This is what they do. This is what they look like. What we need to address is the touchy-feely stuff. Let’s consider how young people feel about the world they have inherited from my generation.

A high level of motivation comes from the wish to make changes and the feeling that it’s possible to make changes. That the skills picked-up as an apprentice will help you shape the future. Engineering is part of making a better world.

[My history is that of an Engineering Industry Training Board (EITB) apprentice who started work in 1976.]


[1] https://www.engineeringuk.com/media/318763/fit_for_the_future_knight_and_willetts_apprenticeship_inquiry_euk_call_for_evidence.pdf

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isambard_Kingdom_Brunel

[3] https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0898266/

Faltering Flattening

There are so many aspects of “Levelling Up” which are vulnerable to harsh criticism that it’s surprising that the Conservative Government sticks to this spending project. “Levelling Up” was a project started by former Prime Minister Boris Johnson, but it has been carried on by successive UK Governments.

The Government’s project is a political project. It’s a slogan. Maybe that should be no surprise.

One explanation for the project’s continuation can be found in Brexit. Whereas the regions of the UK received funds from the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) matched by UK Government funds that source of funding was lost upon EU exit.

Redistribution is not new. A drive to improve social and economic conditions is popular, in principle. Creating more opportunities for areas suffering hardship makes sense. That said, this centralised distribution project is flawed in multiple ways.

For a start, any vox pop will show that no one really knows what it means. Some say that “Levelling Up” is when the Government spends in deprived or “left behind” areas.

Even this is doggy territory. There are without doubt areas of deprivation that need assistance. We need to ask, is a beauty contest run by Ministers the best way of lifting those areas out of their disadvantaged condition? Talk of “left behind” areas after decades of the stigmatisation of certain parts of the UK is hardly a positive way of regeneration.

I think the “Levelling Up” agenda has continued in its current form because of the oil tanker effect. That is the propensity of big spending initiatives to roll on regardless because they are difficult to stop. With little time to run to the next General Election (GE) inventing and implementing something new and more effective is just too politically risky.

This second round of funding, worth more than £2 billion, sounds like a lot of money but set in the context of annual UK Government spending of over £1000 billion[1] that doesn’t seem so much. Given that local government spending has been so heavily curtailed in recent years it is reasonable to say that this “Levelling Up” funding is a poor attempt at a replacement.

When central government picks projects to fund on this basis, it’s saying that it knows better than local government. Or is it that it knows how to win votes better than local government?


[1] In 2020/21 the government of the United Kingdom had a total managed expenditure of over 1053.3 billion British, an increase of over a 100 billion pounds when compared with 2018/19. Statista

Still learning leasons

Mobility has transformed society. By land, by sea or by air the world we see around us has been shaped by the technology that has enabled us to move people, goods, and services. Aviation, the youngest means of everyday transport, has radically transformed society in just over a century.

Demand for air transport is linked to economic development and at the same time air transport is a driver in an economy. Nearly all States work to encourage the growth of aviation in one form or another. All States acknowledge the need for the stringent regulation of activities in their airspace.

4.5 billion people moved around the globe by air. Well, that is until the COVID pandemic struck[1]. Even so, there’s an expectation that global air traffic levels will start to exceed those of 2019 when we start to get into 2025 and beyond.

One quote, among many, sums up the reason for the safety regulation of flying, and it is:

“Aviation in itself is not inherently dangerous. But to an even greater degree than the sea, it is terribly unforgiving of any carelessness, incapacity or neglect.”

[Captain A. G. Lamplugh, British Aviation Insurance Group, London. 1930.]

Here the emphasis is on aviation safety and security as the top considerations. In fact, ask an airline CEO of the number one priority of their business and that’s likely how they will answer, if on the record. Much of that open expression will be sincere but additionally it’s linked to the need to maintain public confidence in the air transport system.

We need to remember that aviation had a shaky start. Those magnificent men, and women in their flying machines were adventurous spirits and born risk takers. That is calculated risk takers. Few of them lasted long unless they mastered both the skill and science of flying.

In the post war era, improvements in aviation safety have been dramatic. As the number of hours flown and the complexity of aircraft has grown so has the level of flight safety. Aviation has been an uncompromising learning machine. A partnership between States and industry.

Sadly, in part, the framework of international regulation we may now take for granted has been developed because of lessons learned from accidents and incidents, many of which were fatal.


[1] https://www.icao.int/sustainability/Documents/COVID-19/ICAO_Coronavirus_Econ_Impact.pdf

Poor law making

If you thought the Truss era was an aberration, and that the UK’s Conservative Party had learned a lesson, then please think again. Wheels set in motion by the ideologue Jacob Rees-Mogg MP are still spinning.

The Retained European Union Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill is trundling its way through the UK Parliament. The Government Bill will next be prepared for its 3rd reading in the House of Commons[1]. The Conservative Government has brought forward this Bill to revoke, reform or revise all the remaining law in the UK that was formerly derived from the UK’s membership of the EU. This turns on its head the normal approach to changing UK legislation. Revocation is automatic unless there’s an intervention by a Minister.

UK civil aviation depends on several thousand pages of legislation derived from EU law[2]. Much of this law was created with considerable contributions from the UK. There’s hardly any if any advocates for automatic revocation of current aviation legislation. Even the thought of this action sends a shiver down the spin of aviation professionals. Generations of them have worked to harmonise rules and regulations to ensure that this most international of industries works efficiently.

Unless amended, the Government’s EU Retained Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill[3] could turn out to be an absolute disaster. Even those who have an irrational wish to eliminate any and every past, present, or future link to Europe must come up with a practical alternative and do this in an incredibly short time. Without a consistent, stable, and effective framework civil aviation in the UK will grind to a halt. Again, even those who have an unsound need to change for change’s sake will be hitting a vital industry hard, as it is only just getting back on its feet after the COVID pandemic and now setting out to meet tough environmental standards.

It’s going to be interesting to see what happens when this poor Bill reaches the House of Lords. Once again, the country will be relying on the upper house to add some common sense to this draft law.  

POST 1: The 3rd reading debate makes it clear that the Government is unsure which laws are covered by the Bill. If the Ministers responsible for this legislation do not themselves know its extent, how can anyone expect civil servants working on this legislation to know the full extent of change? A most strange state of affairs Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill (Third si – Hansard – UK Parliament

POST 2: Retained EU law lays down rules for the airworthiness and environmental certification of aircraft and related products, parts and appliances, as well as for the certification of design and production organisations in the UK Commission Regulation (EU) No 748/2012 of 3 August 2012 laying down implementing rules for the airworthiness and environmental certification of aircraft and related products, parts and appliances, as well as for the certification of design and production organisations (recast) (Text with EEA relevance) (legislation.gov.uk)


[1] https://bills.parliament.uk/bills/3340

[2] https://www.eiag.org.uk/paper/future-retained-eu-law/

[3] https://www.gov.uk/government/news/the-retained-eu-law-revocation-and-reform-bill-2022

More Maths?

More maths? Like so many headlines. It depends what’s intended. This call is not new by any means. It has been repeatedly recognised by Governments, that STEM subjects are of vital importance to the future. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering, and maths.

Between the ages of 16 and 18, a lot of young people drop maths or anything that looks like maths. Understanding that fact is far more important than any dictate from a Prime Minister.

Let’s list some reasons why forcing this is not so easy as a headline might suggest.

Teaching: Mandating more maths without backing it up with the teachers able, enthusiastic, and trained in the subject will likely generate a negative impact.

Bandwidth: for the average student there’s a finite amount of work they will eagerly take on during a pivotal time of their lives. Developing their talents, whatever they are, is surely a priority.

Relevance: a key part of providing more practical maths teaching is convincing students of its immense usefulness in later life. Understanding how maths is used is as important as learning it.

Technology: Digitisation advances rapidly. Maths teaching must take on-board. For example, it’s important to be aware of what’s happening more than knowing every nut and bolt of an algorithm.

All the above are challenges that can be met given adequate resources and a plan. What we get from the PM’s speech is muddle. Numeracy and maths are not the same. I’ve known people who can do remarkable mental calculations on the spot but who would run for the hills if faced with a quadratic equation or a bell curve.

Yes, statistics do underpin a number of activities in everyday life. However, even when you understand their workings the capacity to make bad choices is more in the judgment than in the calculation.

STEM education is a package. It’s part of everything we do in a complex society. There aren’t many occupations that are not touched by the need to know something about the underlying working of our devices, means and methods.

In the past those supporting the humanities may have spoken-up objecting to an overemphasis on STEM subjects. Now, what artist, writer, musician, historian, or geographer does not use technology in their everyday lives? I’d say more maths but done right. Make it practical.

POST: Prime Minister sets ambition of maths to 18 in speech – GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)

Crisis in Health

It’s difficult to think of a more inappropriate person to be Secretary of State for Health and Social Care[1]. He has all the bedside manner of Dracula. Prime Minister (PM) Rishi Sunak re-installed him in that vital Government post. So far, he’s achieved nothing but distress and mismanagement[2].

I shouldn’t joke. The seriousness of the situation in the National Health Service (NHS) isn’t a joking matter. Winter is testing the service to breaking point. Both the statistics and the experience of patients are not acceptable by any reasonable measure.

What’s intolerable is the general Ministerial response. Hard-line rhetoric about not budging on negotiations is callous. Dismissing every call for support by rattling-off lists of figures about Government spending is no help at all. Trying to redirect attention away from the things that need fixing. The shabby politics of avoidance is not what’s needed.

As a personal note, I find the situation indicative of broader failures too. My one term as a Surrey Country Councillor, between 1993 and 1997 is more history than anything else. The problem is that it’s not. I remember papers coming to full council meetings with a title that is pertinent and recognisable today. The subject being “bed blocking[3]”.

That’s 30-years ago, our institutions struggled with making the transition between hospital care and social care. It was clear that there was going to be a growing problem. The demographics pointed to a rising aging population. There was no ambiguity about the facts.

Ministers have come and gone. Quite rapidly over the last year. Each with the responsibility for NHS service delivery, performance, and social care policy. Some like incoherent gad flies, some who span like windmills in a storm, some like patrician overseers but none with the managerial skills needed to address the challenge that stares them in the face.

Most local authorities are dealing with cuts to their budgets, financial constraints and the cost of living demands we all confront. In some cases, they are tittering on the brink of bankruptcy[4]. Many local authorities have been forced to reduce their funding of social care at a time of rising demand. 

It’s mad that, after all this time, we have still not come up with an integrated health service. Pitching the NHS and local authorities against each other for funding is absolutely ludicrous. It’s costing lives.

Today, we must recover from a crisis. Tomorrow, real change must be implemented to prevent a future crisis. It isn’t as if we don’t know what to do!  


[1] https://www.gov.uk/government/people/stephen-barclay

[2] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/nhs-strikes-barclay-cooper-libdems-b2244466.html

[3] https://fullfact.org/health/bed-blocking-what-it-and-it-paralysing-nhs/

[4] https://www.kentonline.co.uk/kent/news/what-it-means-for-kent-residents-if-kcc-goes-bust-277075/

Where’s the common sense?

It’s two whole years since the end of the UK’s Brexit transitional period. That’s since the day when the UK fully withdrew from the European Union (EU). Have we seen any, I mean any, Brexit benefits from the day of the Brexit referendum? The sad truth is – No. We are worse-off. Investments haven’t happened, political turmoil persists and bureaucratic barriers have grown.

Certainly, it’s right to say that British politicians have been busy. They have found lots of targets to blame for this continuing underperformance. You name it; Remainers, young people, environmentalists, protesters, strikers, human rights, overseas aid, COVID, flu, global economic downturn, energy prices, war in Europe, Biden’s administration, China, France, Germany, hot weather, cold weather, the list goes on and on and on. The Brexiter’s blame list is an exceptionally long one. Add to this the fact that Boris Johnson comes in for caustic blame. Often strongest from the people who trumpeted his ascendancy to power in 2019.

Although we should not dwell too much on the past, it’s as well to not let what has happened in this last year be swept under the carpet. Remember 2022, after 44 days, Conservative Liz Truss resigned as British Prime Minister (PM). She was the first choice of the members of the political party most entrenched in Brexit thinking. This extraordinary farce made the country look it was run by like a bunch of incompetent fools, of ill-disciplined fanatics, of preposterous comics.

The blatant dishonesty behind Brexit can not be denied. A recent example was the Government statement on having not attained a promised boost from new trade agreements. A ridiculous political line about not signing deals until they are right for the country is a brazen smoke screen to cover-up a significant lack of achievement[1].

We need some serious common sense injected into our politics. The UK is not going away. The EU is not going away. Both share an immense common interest. Both are faced with similar challenges and threats. Both share the same values.

Brexit has added to costs, adding to inflation, labour shortage and under performance. Most people[2] now accept this analysis and want to see serious change[3]. The more both Conservatives and the Labour Party cling on to the mythology of Brexit, the more damage will be done. Keir Starmer has confirmed that the Labour Party will not seek for Britain to re‑join the EU. What a reckless folly from a would be PM.

POST: referendum – latest news, breaking stories and comment – The Independent


[1] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-63808657

[2] https://www.statista.com/statistics/987347/brexit-opinion-poll/

[3] https://yougov.co.uk/topics/politics/explore/issue/European_Union

Time & Tech

It was a Financial Times newspaper poster that warned of UK job losses on a mass scale. It captured the pervasive idea that, as in the industrial revolution, huge changes in working conditions and types of jobs were come down the line. Technology would radically reshape employment. Those in comfortable jobs would not be imune from change.

One whole broadsheet page carried a message. Center of a picture was a large, polished metal dustbin. Contrasting and overspilling it were white shirt collars. The background was blank. The stark message was – the silicon revolution will mean an end to white collar jobs. I think the advertisement was placed by the trade union: Association of Scientific, Technical and Managerial Staffs (ASTMS)[1].

This was the 1970s. A time when speculation about the impact of computers in the workplace was rife. It was before the Personal Computer burst onto the scene. Names like IBM and the Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) were dominant. I wonder what it would be like if I could step into a time machine and return to that era. To let them know what really happened as technology advanced unrelenting for the next four decades.

In many ways white collar jobs, or office jobs, have not disappeared. If anything, the numbers employed, where a computer is an essential part of the everyday work has increased dramatically. Yes, there’s not so many white collars as digital communications allow people to work at any location. The workplace dress code, if there is one, has left the standard suite and tie behind.

Taking a broad view, the “silicon revolution” has improved life for many. Gone are huge typing pools, mechanical calculators, and Orwellian workplaces. Card file indexes, drawing boards, and toxic chemical copying machines look prehistoric in black and white pictures from the 1970s.

In that conversation with an office worker of that time, what they may be shocked to hear is that the diversity of companies shaping their workplace will narrow down to a small number of vast American names. The expected liberalising impact of technology, that makes information available to everyone, anywhere and at speed will have the perverse effect of narrowing minds.

What do I take from this journey to the past? It’s that the impact of technology is shaped by the choices we make. However, we choose with little idea of the longer-term influence technology has on our lives.

POST: Timeline | The Silicon Engine | Computer History Museum


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Association_of_Scientific,_Technical_and_Managerial_Staffs

Strikes

Impossible to listen to the burbling of UK Minister Stephen Barclay. After a while the listener sinks into an overwhelming feeling of despondency. His words are strung together as if he was on a brain teasing quiz show run by Victoria Coren Mitchell. Barclay exudes a fear of making sense.

For one, please, please, please will he not keep saying the same thing about rigidly adhering to the results of a pay review body. Results which are widely known to be out-of-date. Afterall, if Ministers have any purpose at all, it goes way beyond rubber stamping the work of others.

Given his previous party-political roles it’s astonishing to see him in a serious government job like Health Secretary. A job where playing party-politics can cost lives. I think we all know that the crisis of the moment is not just about pay. However, to pretend that staffing levels and pay are not so important is beyond the understanding of most normal people.

This suited grey-haired man in his early 50s would be better employed on the London stage. I can see him as Marley’s ghost in a Westminster adaptation of A Christmas Carol[1]. Recounting the day when he had the opportunity to fix the problems of Health and Social Care but looked the other way and played for time.

The many strikes that are hitting Britain are avoidable. British politicians are failing to engage with the problem. What’s disheartening about this situation is that everyone knows there will be a settlement at some time. Recognising that fact, it’s about time the groups involved got together and talked long and hard. That is talking with no subject taken off the table.

The Secretary of State for Health and Social Care has a leadership role. It’s time for him, not to excuse the government at every media opportunity, but to engage, roll up his sleeves and meet the unions. Playing party-politics and courting right-wing public opinion was fine as he did in his Brexit job but now Barclay has a real job with real responsibility. It’s winter. This is tragic.

He needs to step up or ship out.

POST: Making a bad situation worse International nurses considering leaving UK if pay does not improve | Nursing Times


[1] https://youtu.be/ReprQS03ZM4

R.I.P. Terry Hall

Term started in September 1978. My first resting place in Coventry was in Priory Hall[1], overlooking the tarmac and the infamous ring road. We were up on an elevated 4th floor. That was the part of the building that spanned the road that led to the Cathedral. It was slabs of grey concrete arranged as Lego blocks in the 1960s. As student accommodation it was bashed and battered but cheap and warm. Sitting at the heart of the city compensated for the fumes that wafted up from the bus station. It was a good way to start my undergraduate life in an industrial Midlands city.

Little remained of medieval Coventry, except paintings. The bombing of WWII reshaped everything in the city centre. Post-war rebuilding embraced the modern with architecture we now find brutal. Strangely for me, 26 years later I moved to a German city that suffered the same fate; Cologne.

I’m writing this to remember sitting on the floor in Lanchester Polytechnic Students Union, beer in hand, listening to the bands that stamped their identity on the city and far beyond. Despite the economic depression, or because of it, there was an unending stream of bands trying get noticed. The Union was a venue where there was always an audience to be found.

Amongst them was The Specials. Although, for me the band that sticks in my mind at that venue was the early version of UB40[2]. “One in Ten” captured so much of what was happening outside the doors the Union building. The mood of the song resonates now as much as it ever did.

My engineering sandwich course meant that I came and went from Coventry between 1978 and 1982. I couldn’t have chosen a better time for live music. Yes, the city was suffering a devastating economic downturn. The Government of the time appeared happy to let great British industrial names to go to the wall. Pubs and clubs were buzzing and Two Tone[3] was invented.

So, thank you Terry Hall. His performances captured what The Specials were about. At the time, I had no idea that what was happening in the Student Union Hall would be enduring but that’s the way it turned out. The brilliant music and lyrics sum up so much that they will last for ever.

We lived in a concrete jungle. The song “Ghost Town[4]” by The Specials is beyond iconic. It’s a lament about the passing of good times. It’s about the wreckage left by an uncaring Government. It’s about a lost sense of direction. It’s a song for today too. We see this pent-up frustration coming back. “The people getting angry”. It’s not the scourge of unemployment this time. It’s the trap of low paid employment without hope.


[1] https://manchesterhistory.net/architecture/1960/prioryhall.html

[2] https://youtu.be/usYgf8cVfvU

[3] https://www.thespecials.com/gallery

[4] https://youtu.be/RZ2oXzrnti4