Ash Merchant, Director of Education at Fujitsu, talks about their UTC journey since working with UTC Reading three years ago. Ash also offers his advice to other employers who are considering getting involved with UTCs. Read the full interview.

Could you tell us a bit about Fujitsu’s work with UTCs?

We embarked on our journey with UTCs three years ago. We started off with UTC Reading which was near our operations in Bracknell; we had a conversation with the Principal, Joanne Harper, and looked at how we could work with them to encourage more young people to take up science subjects, particularly looking at getting girls into computing and engineering. We opened our first Education Ambassador Innovation Hub with them and it was very, very successful. It provided first class technology, role models, CPD and so on, which was accessed not just by the UTC staff and students but by those from the surrounding schools; schools which wouldn’t otherwise have access to these facilities. In fact it was so successful we created ten more hubs in the same year, and another twenty were announced at BETT 2016, ten of them to open at UTCs.

How did Fujitsu’s relationship with UTCs come about?

Fujitsu is a successful business but we’re also a responsible one and we recognise the huge value of STEM skills to the growth of the economy. So we looked at how we could engage with education particularly around developing talent in schools to bridge the skills gap. We saw the UTC model Baker Dearing were creating and wanted to be part of it. At the same time we also created our degree apprenticeships and I’m delighted that several UTC alumni are now working for us in this capacity – it’s a great example of the pathways into work open to you as a UTC student.

What skills that students develop at UTCs are most vital for the workplace?

The transition between education and the workplace can be difficult but UTCs make it seamless. There’s a real balance between academic skills and employability skills at UTCs. Teamwork, communication, problem solving, all these skills you see in the workplace, they’re coupled with a rigorous curriculum that involves new technologies which is relevant for jobs of the future - jobs that might involve IOT [internet of things], robotics, cyber, big data or analytics.

How are UTCs ensuring their students have these when they leave?

It’s early engagement with employers. Here at Fujitsu we have regular access to the UTCs and we’re working with both students and teachers – which is critical as they are the ones teaching the skills we as employers require. This regular interaction with employers means students are talking to them about what it’s like in business, in industry. We’re helping them with career decisions and making sure they are taking the right subjects. And we’re also helping in breaking down stereotypes. I heard a very inspiring speaker at a UCISA conference recently saying that we need to change the imaging around encouraging girls to take up stem – it has to be relevant and inspire them. And we’re doing that; we have role models in all of our UTCs, they are young people, and they’ve been through the education system, so the current UTC students can relate to them.

How do UTCs differ from other schools? What are the advantages of these differences?

UTCs are more innovative, they’re pushing the boundaries. Starting at 14 is a key difference. At a UTC, at 14, you get this exposure to industry and university through the UTC sponsors that you don’t get at other schools at that age. The collaboration between UTCs and employers means that the skills we need are being taught but they’re still getting the balance between academic, vocational and technical, and we need that strong foundation for future generations. Something like 65% of primary school pupils will be employed in jobs that haven’t even been created yet! Another big difference is the school day; at a UTC it is very much a business day, working nine to five. This produces students that are confident and well prepared for the workplace. This was evident in our Operation Innovation competition which a team from UTC Watford actually won and since then they’ve all received offers from their first choice universities! It was Darwin who said ‘in the history of mankind it is those who have collaborated and improvised most effectively who have prevailed in society’ and right now it’s the collaboration between education and industry that’s vital if our young people are to develop the skills that will benefit them in the long term – and that is the advantage UTC students have.

How has your experience working with UTC students?

Amazing! They have been a breath of fresh air. Whenever I go into the UTCs we work with I can see the passion of the students for their subjects, and it’s obvious in the teachers too. It’s definitely a model we will continue to support.

What are the key things UTC students take away from their work with employers whilst at school?

I think it gives them a rich experience and an insight into what it’s like to work in industry. They get a real-world understanding about the jobs market, they learn that it’s changing and it’s uncertain, and we have to be honest with them that competition for jobs is high. But if they have the opportunity to develop their skills and to ask the right questions and engage with the right people, they can create their own pathways and get their head start. These are the opportunities that UTC students are getting through their work with employers.

What advice would you give to other employers who are considering getting involved with UTCs?

Absolutely go and do it. We as employers want young people to be business ready and the only way you are going to do that is to make an investment – and we’ve benefitted greatly from it. If you want young people to become part of your organisation then get involved with UTCs and nurture the talent yourselves. The arrogance of success is that what you’re doing now is going to be good enough for tomorrow and it’s not. A report from the CBI last year found that 69% of businesses are not confident about filling their high-skilled jobs in the future and that’s up from 55% in 2015. It’s only going to worsen unless we as employers do something about it.

What tips could you offer a young person considering attending a UTC?

Make the most of the employer partnerships on offer, these provide such great opportunities to go out and see how industry works and learn the language of industry. I think the targeted education makes for better decision making and encourages students to think, ‘where’s next?’ It’s not just about apprenticeships, higher education is open to you and there are opportunities for funded degrees. Going to a UTC means you also have the chance to work with some inspirational leaders like Joanne at Reading, Lee at Warrington or Geoffrey at LDE and all the others.

What are the benefits of young people starting their technical education from the age of 14?

It’s the early exposure to the working environment that a technical education provides. UTCs are striking the balance between technical and academic learning. From 14 students are developing their confidence, they’re learning how to present themselves and communicate with employers so that they are not fazed by interactions with senior level employees. They are encouraged to be inquisitive and the focus isn’t just on exams. UTCs have found the balance which means that young people are broadening their horizons not closing them down.

Why should people #ThinkUTC?

It’s a different approach to education and industry and it’s vital for the future that the links UTCs have established are replicated. People talk about the fourth industrial revolution and unless we adapt we will have an economy of people without jobs and jobs without people.

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