Smart Machines & Factories
A Meta-morphasis is coming
Published:  15 January, 2020

A change is coming to the way engineering is taught, being led by Skills Development Scotland, and championed by Primary Engineer. It’s a topic that stems from the skills gap, and that is meta-skills. Dr Susan Scurlock, CEO and Founder of Primary Engineer, reports.

As with a lot of initiatives from Primary Engineer, meta-skills go right back to primary school. “As with any skills-based sector, the trouble is inspiring young people at an early age with appropriate careers related learning”, said Graham Stow, head of education at Primary Engineer.

The key is to focus on engaging all young people by working closely with industry to base education courses on what is needed to work in the engineering sector for a full career. The factory setting actually highlights this issue perfectly, as a sector that rapidly advances, most engineers currently working today aren’t working from what they were taught 10 years ago. How could they? The technology within factories now boasts more connectivity and computing power that a new job role has been born, the IT OT hybrid professional. A role that wouldn’t have been taught in education 10, even 5, years ago as it didn’t exist.

Those that currently fit this hybrid IT/OT professional role do so because of the meta-skills they have learnt along the way. Meta-skills are the elements learnt that aren’t tied to a direct technology and can be applied to such a fast-moving sector. These skills follow professionals throughout their careers, and Primary Engineer wants to start promoting them as early as possible.

It’s easy to think back to a time in school where your maths teacher would push a certain method because “you won’t all have a calculator in your pocket at all times”. Funnily enough, there aren’t many humans that don’t carry a phone capable of complex equations these days. But has this removed the need for mathematicians as a profession? No, of course not, their role in industry has just changed with the advancements in technology. The meta-skills these mathematicians have prove invaluable and ensure there are roles within a wide range of sectors; be that computing coding or software engineering.

The same applies to a factory setting, whilst engineers working today may have been taught an in-depth overview of a particular technology, that same piece of tech could now be obsolete. But a thorough understanding of what that technology does, the problem-solving resilience learnt along the way and the ability to adapt to challenges has prepared them for the future.

At Primary Engineer we want to (almost) reverse this process. Rather than the technical skills being taught throughout education with those all-important meta-skills being picked up throughout a career, we want those meta-skills nurtured as early as possible. No matter the stage in someone’s career/education journey, the Government, education and employers must have consistent and supportive careers-based learning programmes.

Companies are becoming aware of the fact that this is the only way to future-proof themselves from the widening skills gap, especially within factory automation that has an ageing workforce issue. We are seeing steps in the right direction, an example from one of our supporters would be the Rockwell Automation EMEA Graduate Programme. Such a programme gives those still in education the opportunity to work and learn from experts in different countries, creating a unique experience unlike that found with classroom learning.

Whilst this is a great step in the right direction, we want to see this approach across the UK industrial sector. Across the board we need to see young people, still in education, receiving support to pursue their chosen career paths. Whether those young people continue on that career path in engineering or beyond, the point is still valid. The meta-skills they learn along the way will prepare them for the future and ensure employability regardless of its day to day technical application. To summarise, associate director of innovation and STEM at City of Glasgow College adds: “We live in a world where the application of knowledge, skills and experiences in collaborative, complex and rapidly changing environments underpins our collective interpretation of work readiness in graduates and employees. We need to consider how best to create educational experiences that support our learners and industries to thrive with confidence, with longevity and with agility.

“Can we say with confidence that the current education system is optimised for the development of a wider, and arguably richer, skills development pipeline? Are we being restrained by systems, structures and narrow curricula predicated on the labour needs of the industries from the past, or are we investing in transformative models of education which place meta-skills at the heart of learner development?

“If the UK is to realise the latent potential within the current and future workforce and improve productively to globally competitive levels, the need to find new value from our investment in the education and skills system has never been clearer”.

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