Supporting the Next Generation of Engineers Through COVID

When history of the UK’s response to coronavirus is written I’m confident that the cancellation of exams will be seen as a precipitate, unwise decision that had far reaching, negative consequences for a great number of young people. For A-level students in particular, exam results can be critical to realising career ambitions. With stiff competition for places at the best universities, achieving your target grades means getting onto the course you really want, or not. One exam grade either way might mean getting a good start into your career of choice, or not. Assembling a collection of students in a large hall for an exam, spaced a little further apart than normal, doesn’t seem like one of the harder problems organisations have had to solve for during this crisis. And yet the cancellation of all exams was one of the first announcements when the lockdown started. The consequence of this – having grades assessed by teachers – was always going to be unfair to many students despite the best efforts of those teachers.

Undergraduates have had a very rough time of it too, with campuses closed, exams either cancelled or open book and online tuition and assignments patchily delivered. Given that the summer term is all about the lead up to exams, the whole thrust of the term has been somewhat lost in those universities where exams have not taken place.

Many students will have arranged summer placements or internships over the summer. These can be invaluable in helping students learn how their skills might be applied to real-world jobs. They will have the opportunity to deliver a project and experience team working. For engineering students, they will be learning hands-on skills that they won’t experience at a university. They will also be finding out whether a particular sector or organisation is likely to enthuse them.

This year, sadly, it has been evident that many companies have cancelled their summer placements entirely, perhaps understandably given the battles that many are fighting just to stay in business. Others, with offices temporarily closed to staff, have replaced what would have been an eight-week placement in an office or lab with a short internet-based experience, providing short talks and assignments. This can only add to the feeling of disappointment many will be feeling.

Summer Placements at Plextek: The Practicalities

As CEO, I feel quite keenly the responsibility to keep our staff both physically and mentally healthy – this is a balance that needs to be re-evaluated on a weekly, if not sometimes daily basis at the moment. Given the negative impact that undergraduates had already experienced this year, I was very eager to ensure that we did not let down the half dozen students that we were planning to host over the summer, and provide them with something like a normal experience. Each of our students typically gets a self-contained project to work on over an eight-week period. They are deliberately quite challenging, to get them thinking and stretch their ability. The projects are almost always hands-on and practical in nature, so access to our labs and workshops are essential, as is guidance and mentoring from permanent staff. However, given that most of our staff had been working from home since late March, it wasn’t immediately obvious how we could arrange this.

As it turned out we were able to align the students’ arrival for the summer with a partial opening up of our premises. The latter followed implementation of the government guidelines for safe working in offices and labs, which resulted in a host of changes to the office layout and new working practices, including an electronic booking-in system to limit the numbers in the office on any given day.

Our HR team were busy making sure that everything was in place for the day that the students were welcomed onto our premises. To ensure that support and advice was always available to the students, we organised a rota system so that a small number of senior staff would always be present each day. Student supervisors and mentors agreed to come into the office during the students’ first week to introduce them to the company and get their projects started.

With typically about a third of our staff now in the building at any time there is plenty of space for everyone to social distance but there is a lively feel that has been absent since March. The students have settled in and are in their second week of exploring the problems we have set. I’m hoping to provide further progress reports as the summer holiday proceeds, including some news on the students’ progress, but it’s already gratifying to see the positive impact of this modest return to normality in an astonishingly disrupted year.