University-industry relationships key to developing future engineers

Professor Gary Hawley, from the University of Bath, cites the institution's electric racing car team as a prime example of what such collaboration can achieve

The UK Government designated 2018 as the Year of Engineering, campaigning to promote the sector whilst inspiring the next generation of engineers. Last year’s celebrations notwithstanding, 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 it.

But whose responsibility is it to ensure there is a steady stream of aspiring engineers to help boost the UK’s engineering capabilities? Government? Industry? Schools? Universities? The answer is all of the above.

Whilst 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 a 2017 report, Engineering UK put the annual shortfall of graduate engineers at 20,000, whilst the Institution of Engineering and Technology revealed that up to 62 per cent of engineering employers said graduates cannot offer the right skills.

Engineering is not taught as a core subject in primary and secondary schools, so it is the job of 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 recent survey of students returning from their placement showed that 74% of employers would welcome them back as employees. Students will 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.

Competing under the Team Bath Racing brand allows students to develop more quickly than the classroom could ever achieve, and brings alive the passion for all things engineering

Over the past few years we have noticed more and more students opting for placements at small and medium-sized enterprises. 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 in the academic training and development of young people is to continually emphasis 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 (TBRe), is currently competing for the first time in China at the Formula Student Electric China. TBRe arrived not only as the first and only UK team to compete at this event. The fantastic competition 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 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 teamwork, coordinated project management, systems thinking, individual leadership, and responsibility; in other words, all the skills required of future engineers. These cannot be taught effectively in a classroom, but nurtured in an environment that promotes them; this activity is perfect to achieve this.

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 it

The experience our TBRe students will gain from competing in China is invaluable, and largely made possible by the generosity of their lead sponsor, Shanghai Automotive Industry Corporation (SAIC) Motor Technical Centre. The students have 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 earlier this year.

This university-industry relationship is what makes for the type of engineering graduate so 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 global top 10 out of 500 teams – our Drones team – which won the IMechE national UK event – and now TBRe. 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 bring alive the passion for all things 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.

Professor Gary Hawley is dean of the Faculty of Engineering & Design at the University of Bath