I caught a repeat on television a few days ago of the 1986 movie Mosquito Coast. In the film, Harrison Ford decided to uproot his family from their comfortable home and relocate them to a Central American jungle.
His dream was to use his skills, as an inventor and physics graduate, to build a society from scratch. Though his family seemed less than thrilled about his dream, as a concept it’s a really bold idea, and it poses some interesting questions. I began thinking about what kind of skills we would really need if we were going to rebuild a society.
At the height of the Cold War between Russia and the West in the 1980s we lived under the threat of apocalyptic destruction. Sometimes it seems as though those fears could be coming back to haunt us again and, as we have seen in Syria, a society can quickly crumble during a conflict.
When the dust settles and people try to rebuild their lives and their communities they need individuals who understand trades and can get things running again. In the movie, it seems Harrison’s character, Allie, thought the most important task to start when he was creating his new society was to build a working fridge. I don’t think that would be my number one concern, but I would want some practical-minded people stranded with me if we were going to start rebuilding a civilisation.
I would want builders and carpenters to build our new homes, plumbers who could build a working sanitation system and provide us with drinking water; automotive engineers to help create our modes of transport, health care workers to keep us alive as well as hairdressers, to help us retain our dignity by keeping us looking smart.
Trades are the foundation upon which all great civilisations are built. Without knowledge of these vital practical skills, a society can quickly fall apart. That is why a vocational education is so important; not just to the people who receive it, but to our country as a whole. We all benefit from the services provided by people who train for these careers.
What I would like to see is more acknowledgement of the way in which a true vocational education is vital for anyone starting out in their career. An education that just focuses on exams without giving students the right work experience and hands-on practical skills can become unbalanced. I know that in my first month of teaching I learned more about what was really involved in doing the job than I did in my years of study beforehand.
This is why qualifications that emphasise work experience and work placements are highly sought after by employers. They want to recruit someone who knows how to behave at work, who has the determination to work hard and deliver the goods and who is able to solve real life problems – not just theoretical situations.
I know many people who look back on their studies and openly acknowledge that beyond looking good on their CV, those qualifications did not prepare them for the real world. Their most valuable learning took place on the job. There has been significant Government focus in the last few years on promoting Apprenticeships. This kind of training leads to real careers for those who engage with it because they are learning those vital work skills that are so difficult to teach in the classroom. This experience, alongside their theoretical training, is what gives them the edge over others who have just taken academic exams.
Last Friday I went to see our construction students who are working with Havebury Housing Partnership on an innovative scheme to build seven new homes in Bury St Edmunds.
The project, which is believed to be the first of its kind, sees Further Education students working on a true construction build alongside trade professionals and will give students unprecedented hands-on experience of a real-life development project.
So far, students from the Bricklaying Level 2 course have been on site, working alongside professional bricklayers and, as the build progresses, students from carpentry, electrical and plumbing courses will also get involved. It is these students who will be ahead of their peers when they go for a job in the future. And it’s because we take trades so seriously and invest a huge amount of energy into making the training exceptional.
My hope is that this is a blueprint for the future. I would like to see all students getting the best possible preparation for the workplace with meaningful projects that teach them the skills they will need for the rest of their lives. Both businesses and colleges need to work together to ensure students get real jobs at the end of their education.
-- Nikos Savvas is principal at West Suffolk College