With skills shortages an enduring problem in engineering, one criticism aimed at companies looking for new staff is that they are quick to moan about the lack of youngsters coming through, but slow to do anything constructive about it themselves. And in many cases, that negative evaluation is probably warranted.
There are, however, some notable exceptions to the rule. Festo, the German industrial control and automation firm, for instance, has always taken a far-sighted view of skills. It knows that unless companies help to portray engineering in a positive light, then the sector will never attract the number of recruits it needs.
As a result, Festo has a long and proud traditional of hosting Stem Ambassador days at its Northampton headquarters, inviting local school children aged between 8 and 14 years of age to come along to find out exactly what it does. The youngsters are given an interactive introduction to Festo’s technology and are provided with multiple examples of where it is used. The aim, ultimately, is to help the young visitors realise the true extent to which engineering positively impacts their daily lives.
“Our aim is to show young people how great engineering is by inviting them to see our facilities in Northampton,” says Jacqui Hanbury, Festo’s Stem Ambassador. “As a local employer we have a need for young engineers to join our workforce. As suppliers of automation we also rely on a strong engineering sector and this helps ensure we have a sustainable future.
“One day a month we welcome two groups of school or college pupils to experience engineering from Festo’s point of view. Supported by our 24 Stem Ambassadors, we do workshops, bionics presentations and show our exhibition room displays as well as the miniature factory line. We also talk about the 10,000 engineers who work for Festo and explain to the children the career paths we took to become engineers.”
Festo’s technology lends itself to this kind of exposure. While it primarily makes pneumatic and electrical control and drives for industrial environments, it is well-known for applying its products in biomimetic research projects. In recent years it has unveiled a succession of robotic creations – seagulls, jellyfish, dragonflies, and even a robot kangaroo – producing elegant prototypes that make for superb visual entertainment.
Indeed, on the day that I visited Festo’s Stem day, its engineers were proudly showing off a robotic gripper inspired by fish fins, and challenging the youngsters to create their own versions of the device out of cardboard. The result was some excited and inspired youngsters from Lodge Park school in Northamptonshire who were giving some serious thought to the engineering of new structures, possibly for the first time in their lives.
On each Stem day, several Festo employees free up their time to give presentations and to provide information. John Hedges, one of its application support technicians, has been involved with the scheme for 18 months. He thoroughly enjoys working with the youngsters, and says that he gets a lot back in return.
“I really enjoy working with the kids,” he says. “I find that they are really engaged with the subject matter, particularly those in in year 9 and below. It’s really important that we get them young, as in no time at all they are making academic decisions that will inform their careers for the rest of their lives.”
Festo’s learning days are organised through the government-backed StemNet campaign, which works with hundreds of companies to enable young people to understand real world applications of Stem subjects and experience hands-on activities. See http://www.stemnet.org.uk/ for more details.