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The future’s bright for Britain’s young people

09th April 2016

Martin Grey, Viridor’s Head of Public Affairs, writes exclusively for CIWM Journal on the need to transform how the UK resource sector invests in STEM education.

It’s 3:30pm and as I write this article my five-year-old daughter will be putting down her pencil and heading home from school for another day. Today, some ten million young people in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will do exactly the same thing.

And today, in a period that brings together National Apprenticeship and British Science Weeks, there are ten billion reasons for our sector to think about those kids. Ten billion – the figure our sector has invested in modern, UK clean-tech infrastructure over recent years.

The EU circular economy package, currently under discussion, will drive further investment and opportunities. The Green Alliance states that by 2030, on a current trajectory, the circular economy could create over 200,000 gross jobs and reduce unemployment by about 54,000. It could also have the potential to offset around 7% of the expected decline in skilled employment to the year 2022.

More extensive expansion of circular economy initiatives could more than double these figures, creating around half a million jobs (gross), reducing unemployment by around 102,000 and potentially offsetting around 18% of the expected loss in skilled employment over the next decade.

But how do we reposition our sector to attract the engineers necessary to build our infrastructure, or the scientists and technologists to operate our kit? In line with our own ambitions, UK engineering could contribute £27bn to the UK economy every year by 2022 if the nation can meet demands for a quarter of a million new vacancies in the same timeframe. And of those vacancies, how do we attract the limited labour pool to our sector? The 2014 Global Talent Shortage Survey highlighted the top three shortages as skilled trades, engineers and technicians, with a separate survey noting a year-on-year increase from 12 to 19% of firms reporting difficulties in finding suitable graduate recruits. Just the people we need. No wonder the UK Commission for Employment and Skills points to economic growth being restrained by skills shortages.

But it’s not only in engineering we need be concerned. In its recent report ‘Equality and Quality in Education’, the OECD pointed to the fact that almost a fifth of English teenagers drop out of school at sixteen. This places Britain 25th out of 35 countries in terms of adults who failed to stay in education up to the age of 18, trailing countries such as Slovenia, Slovakia and the Czech Republic.

Our sector needs a fresh focus on young people, their motivators and how to connect the potential of careers in a green economy. And our sector, like wider industry, wants to do more. In a recent survey, only 8% of employers felt they were doing enough to prepare the future workforce, with 53% interested in actively engaging with secondary schools and 32% at primary level.

Over the last week I’ve attended three events which gave me hope. A careers event at a local school; a visit to our Cardiff ERF education centre, and a regional hub event of our flagship partnership with the Engineering Development Trust.

Seven years ago when I joined the sector the language was very different. From a focus on collection crews we’ve moved to a language of STEM career choices. We’re learning from success in other sectors. Aligning with national partners like the Engineering Development Trust or BITC’s Business Class allows interventions at critical education pathways, influencing school and career choices and – ultimately – talent pipelines.

As BP, Coca-Cola Enterprises, EDF, GSK and MasterCard know, partnerships make a difference. 81% of students who joined Viridor’s GO4SET partnership stated the project had made an impact on their enjoyment of science. 89% said they looked more favourably on STEM as a career. And, of students undertaking EDT’s 6 month Engineering Education Scheme olds, 91% went on to choose a STEM degree, with 77% entering STEM employment following graduation.

Its young people like Sarah Kerr, from Glasgow, our sector urgently needs. Sarah joined Viridor’s GO4SET programme at Bannerman High. At university she joined Viridor’s £177m Glasgow Recycling and Renewable Energy Centre (GRREC) project for a Year in Industry (YINI) placement with EDT where she earned while she learned, with a view to completing her studies and applying for our fast-track graduate programme.

But it’s not only graduates where we need to focus. We need to accelerate opening new routes to employment – structured placement programmes, work-trials, apprenticeships and Year in Industry partnerships. 18 year-old Lucy Matters joined Viridor from Central Sussex College on a business apprenticeship with our West Sussex logistics teams. She joins 22 others on live Viridor apprenticeships and 85 who have undergone the South West Water programme – a ‘Top 100 Apprenticeship Employer’.

We need to think again about those young people like Sarah, Lucy and my daughter and the world in which the live. We need to reconsider and realign our education ‘offer’, recognising best-practice in partnerships from our corporate peers. We need to speak the new language of a technology-rich ‘generation next’ and adapt our learning and working environments to match.

Just as with waste, our sector is transforming. Let’s make sure we take young people with us. For them, and us, the future’s bright.

Martin Grey is Head of Public Affairs for Viridor UK

For further information on the Engineering Development Trust, visit here.

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