Some of you may have seen the small news item from Casper, Wyoming, last month telling of Michael Palmer’s award for research into green cement. No? Well that may be because Michael Palmer is an eighth grade student and the award was at a county science fair. Michael’s project involved testing four samples of cement – OPC as well as a variety of ‘green’ cement mixes – to see which could withstand the greatest amount of pressure. Michael told the Casper Journal that he hopes his green cement mix, which incorporated flyash and glass, will one day replace Portland cement. Somebody give that kid a job.
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I have written before about the difficulty of attracting engineers into the cement industry, and indeed attracting students to engineering. This is an international problem, but it is especially going to hit emerging markets where industry is growing more rapidly than the pool of skilled workers. Currently, 11% of China’s labour force are college graduates, but, according to a study by McKinsey Global Institute, that is still going to leave China short of 23 million college-educated workers by 2020. It is a problem caused by a combination of factors: an ageing population; enormous growth in the service sectors and in more skill-intensive manufacturing; the outward migration of skilled workers; inflexible labour laws. So how to solve this problem? In December, The Economist published a blog on its website called ‘The great mismatch’, in which the author points out that the goals of education and employment need to be better aligned: ‘educators and employers operate in parallel universes…a big part of the solution lies in bringing these two universes together, obliging educators to step into employers’ shoes, employers to step into educators’, and students to move between the two’. In accordance with this, the author suggests a ‘revamp’ of the vocational education system. With employers on board, such a system could be a win-win. For example, looking at Germany, which has had huge success with its vocational programmes, Haver & Boecker and Siemens are working with the South Westphalia University of Applied Sciences to offer extra-occupational degree courses in Oelde. Bachelor degrees in Arts and Engineering can be fitted around apprenticeships and existing jobs. Haver & Boecker has further extended its relationship with the university by establishing a joint research agreement, which will offer students in Oelde the opportunity to participate in product development. The company benefits from an increase in skilled workers; the student benefits from the practical experience gained during the course. This experience, one could argue, is as valuable as the degree itself. For students entering the world of work, it is common to see recruitment adverts stipulating a certain level of work experience that recent graduates are unlikely to have. Perhaps for some jobs, the actual degree isn’t nearly as necessary as you might think, in which case apprenticeships could be the way forward. In the meantime, the challenge for the cement industry will be to manage the skills gap as experienced workers retire and newcomers (perhaps Michael Palmer) enter the workforce.