The UKESF’s 10th Anniversary: Creation of the Foundation – John Moor Interview
John Moor, NMI/Techworks
The idea for the UKESF arose from concerns from NMI members about skills. Can you tell us a little more about this and how it came into being?
“My earliest recall is when Prof Mark Beach from the University of Bristol invited a colleague and I to Bristol to discuss the skills challenge in the UK’s Electronics sector. Mark expressed his concerns over the dwindling numbers of course applicants, despite the importance to the economy and demand from industry. As the UK trade association for ‘semiconductors to systems’, NMI agreed to look into it further. We needed more focussed resource and I was introduced to Dr Wendy Daniell; we buddied up to gather more evidence and test the concern against the available data. The evidence was stark; it showed a significant dwindling of course uptake over a 5-year period and a loss of graduates to other sectors after graduation. I called my boss and said, “Derek, if this is not a strategic issue for our industry, I do not know what is – we must do something!” Fortunately, he agreed and so did our Chairman, Dr David Burrows. So Wendy and I set about putting a plan together that looked at the journey towards an EE degree and what happens thereafter. We looked at the stakeholders – including parents, teachers, industry and government – and constructed a pathway model.”
What are your memories of the early days getting the Foundation off the ground?
“It was challenging. We gathered anecdotal evidence, UCAS and university data, but that was not enough to get buy-in and real commitment – we needed to up our game. We were fortunate enough to win the interest of Indro Mukerjee – an accomplished and well respected senior industry professional – and he encouraged us to put more effort into shaping up the plan. At that stage we called it the Electronics Skills Academy; by the end of the process we had the full UK Electronics Skills Foundation name and programme, and a lot of the success in the early days was due to him and a government champion in the shape of Keith Hodgkinson, who also helped shape the work and provided some small, but very important seed funding. Then we had to take it on the road and socialise it with our most important stakeholder group besides the raw talent: industry.
“The turning point was when Wendy and I had a meeting with the Vice President of HR at Cambridge Silicon Radio. We got others on board shortly after, such as Dialog Semiconductor and Arm, and we had a great line up of universities supporting too. Next we had to attract the talent towards the scheme – that was very inspiring for me, such an impressive pool of young, enthusiastic and intelligent people, and that remains true to this day.”
There has been considerable change across the technology industry landscape in the last 10 years; has this change resulted in changes in terms of meeting the skills challenge?
“Of course. The only constant in technology is change and this means that the approach to skills, the types of skills, and how they adapt must be fit for purpose. What we have seen over the past 10 years is a major shift to a digital and low carbon/clean energy world, which translates into engineering disciplines of artificial intelligence, machine learning, electrification, cyber security and more. As the industry evolves, so do our tools and methods of design and production, so students today are better placed to learn about data science than transistor transfer characteristics. I am also amongst many who feel we lost something in the UK when all the polytechnics transformed into universities in the 1990s and apprenticeships were significantly replaced by graduate education. The UKESF went some way to address this in its own way by introducing employers into the education stream and able to influence the students’ selection of subjects. Fortunately, educators and policy makers have realised this and right now we are seeing a transformation to a better blended approach, which reinstates the concept of apprenticeships with higher education – this should yield a much more adept and productive engineering workforce for the future – one which can adapt more quickly and sustainably to the opportunities of the technology sector.”
Finally, your focus is now about security and connectivity (the Internet of Things). What are the skills challenges that you see in this environment?
“For such a simple concept, the implications of adding connectivity to embedded applications – i.e. the concept of the Internet of Things – are truly profound. I can see a tide of change looming in all areas of industry and society, including business models (move from physical products to services), engineering practice (from planned obsolescence to resilience and reliability) and global regulation. A connected world offers a huge number of benefits to citizens, consumers and the global economy and I can get very excited about some of the innovations and new possibilities that are now within reach. However, a more connected world also means a more vulnerable world and the implications of a data breach or denying availability of a service (due to a security attack) can be catastrophic – the cyber-physical world dimension could manifest in not just financial losses but actual loss of life. So without security being a central part of the development cycle and maintenance thereafter – i.e. across the entire lifecycle – there cannot be a safe digital future. Making it safe to connect is my current challenge – and the vehicle to help secure the Internet of Things is aptly named ‘the IoT Security Foundation’ and security must therefore be at the very heart of any digital skills programme.”