Mark Kennedy: Scientific minds need to be nurtured in skills debate

UTC Leeds principal Mark Kennedy with students.
UTC Leeds principal Mark Kennedy with students.
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WHEN adults meet young people for the first time one of our default questions seems to be “what would you like to do when you’re older?”

I’d hazard a guess that the majority of young people have absolutely no idea. Gone are the days of jobs for life; of generation after generation following the same industrial path.

I believe there are two fundamental reasons why our young people are floundering when it comes to career aspiration. Firstly, there has never been so much choice. Today we’re overwhelmed with opportunity – there are thousands of jobs in existence today which were unheard of 15 or even 10 years ago. Wind farm engineers are keeping green energy flowing, 3D printing professionals are changing the face of modern medicine as they explore how to mimic human tissue and advances in robotics are transforming engineering and science roles. Who knows what developments the next 20 years might bring?

But there is another reason why young people are paralysed with uncertainty when asked about their career plans.

As I’m well aware, schools are under immense pressure to meet targets and to keep on top of an ever-changing curriculum. Unfortunately, this means that schools often don’t have the time or resources to invest in career advice.

Statistics released in this year’s Annual Manufacturing Report showed that manufacturers thought educational institutions were failing to promote manufacturing careers, with 62 per cent suggesting schools and education providers could improve their activity.

At UTC Leeds, we provide high quality academic and technical education and we say, quite clearly, that we’re “preparing tomorrow’s engineers”. Whilst we’re unique in the Leeds City Region combining academic excellence with technical training, our ethos shouldn’t be unique. All schools in the region must inspire students by helping them see the far-reaching possibilities. Our students work on real-life projects with our employer partners – offering both practical and academic education allows students to see the range of opportunities available and put their knowledge in to practice. How can young people aspire to something which they’re unaware exists?

The Leeds City Region has been at the forefront of key industry moments over the years, but how many 14-year-olds were aware that the 1767 discovery of carbonation, the major component of most soft drinks or the gearing system for 2014’s Rosetta Spacecraft landing on Comet 67P were developed in our region?

My daughter found her passion – and most likely her future career – accidentally through work experience. She discovered archaeology purely by chance but it’s now set to define her working future.

Exposing young people to cutting edge technologies, introducing them to employers and thereby giving them a strong ambition to success is the only way forward. It is criminal we are not telling young people what tantalising possibilities lie ahead.

The number of science, research, technology and engineering jobs is expected to double nationally and at double the rate of other occupations by 2023, according to a recent report by the Social Market Foundation for EDF Energy. Our region will be in desperate need of a new breed of talented, skilled workers to embrace this wide range of job opportunities.

It’s not all about engineering, in the traditional sense, however. Sectors such as retail, PR, legal, and financial services are also expected to witness increased demand for science, research, engineering and technology skills in the next few years. It’s a good time to be entering these fledgling state-of-the art careers. Salaries are rising, demand is outstripping supply and they provide an opportunity to change the world. These new 21st century jobs underpin sustainability and environmental projects, fuel healthcare innovation, and touch just about every facet of 21st century life.

Especially, we need to be letting girls know that these exciting jobs are their opportunities too. How many young girls are being inspired to think outside the box about their future careers?

Inquisitive minds need to be nurtured. Collectively we need to be excited about the future and the role younger generations will play. We need to inspire creative scientists, professional problem solvers and innovative collaborators. If we fail to do so, we are failing the youngest members of our society, and generations to come.

Mark Kennedy is principal at UTC Leeds, the city’s university technical college for 14 to 19-year-olds.

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