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Supporting the next generation of engineers through COVID 

Thought Leadership published by Plextek, under Education / Training, Manufacturing, Product Design, Recruitment, Research (Technology)

Nick Hill, CEO at Plextek, reflects on a tough time for school and university students and explains why he was determined to keep his commitment to engineering internships  

With the recent A-level results chaos and Government U-turns have put many students through an avoidable roller-coaster of emotions and left universities in crisis. Based on the infamous algorithm, almost 40% of students initially had their teacher-assessed grades reduced by Ofqual’s standardisation process whereas the number of top grades was at an all-time high. One heartfelt comment from the Association of School and College Leaders was that it was, “utterly unfair and unfathomable”. 

Ignoring the consequences for students 

It is clear that the cancellation of exams will be seen as a precipitate, unwise decision with far reaching, negative consequences for a great number of young people.    

For A-level students with career ambitions, achieving target grades means getting onto the course they really want, or not. One grade either way might make all the difference. Assembling students in a large hall for an exam, spaced a little further apart than normal, doesn’t seem too difficult to achieve and yet the cancellation of all exams was one of the first announcements in lockdown. The consequence was always going to be unfair to many students despite the best efforts of teachers.  

Undergraduates have also had a very rough time, with campuses closed, exams cancelled or open book, and online tuition and assignments patchily delivered. In normal circumstances, many students arrange summer placements or internships to gain valuable real-world skills and have the opportunity experience team working. For engineering students, they will be learning hands-on skills that they won’t experience at a university.   

But this year, many companies have cancelled summer placements entirely as they face other challenges. Others, with offices temporarily closed, have replaced what would have been an eight-week placement in an office or lab with a short internet-based experience, providing talks and assignments.   

Responsibility for future welfare 

As CEO at Plextek, I have the responsibility to keep our staff both physically and mentally healthy and strike a balance that currently needs to be re-evaluated on a daily basis. I have also been very keen to ensure that we did not let down the six students we were planning to host over the summer and provide them with a near normal experience. Each student typically gets a self-contained project to work on over an eight-week period. They are deliberately quite challenging to stretch their thinking and ability. The projects are almost always practical in nature, so access to our labs and workshops are essential, as is guidance and mentoring from 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, following government guidelines for safe working in offices and labs. This resulted in a host of changes to the 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 made sure that everything was in place for the day the students were welcomed onto our premises and 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.  

Overcoming disruption 

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 about halfway through their projects, exploring the problems we have set. The students have all just taken part in our annual internal hackathon (slightly modified this year), where they came up with some great innovative ideas. The students are all doing well and it’s gratifying to see the positive impact of this modest return to normality in an astonishingly disrupted year. 

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