What are technical jobs anyway?


New platform lets students experience life on the workfloors of technical professions to prove it’s not all overalls and grease

Teachers encouraged to expand tech assignments

To improve the reputation of technical studies, the Regional Technological Centres (RTCs) of West and East Flanders earlier launched the campaign Techniek is sjiek (Technical is Chic). The most recent feature of the campaign is the platform Bedrijf+School (Company+School), which brings students on to the actual workfloors of companies and research institutions.

The lack of interest in STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) is an issue that has been high on Flanders’ political agenda for some time. But despite government and labour market campaigns, there is little progress.

The most recent report from the Flemish education ministry, “Higher Education in Figures”, showed that this academic year, 191 students or 3% fewer than last year, enrolled in science and tech studies at universities or colleges. As a result, companies continue to have difficulties finding skilled staff for their technical vacancies.

“Many students still think of dirty work in overalls when they think of technical jobs,” says Isabelle Herteleer of RTC East Flanders, “while many of the job opportunities consist of high-tech innovation in good working conditions.”

To change this view, RTC West and East Flanders have joined forces for Techniek is sjiek. They are organising media campaigns with positive testimonials and events like the Technologica event in Ghent in May.

Getting teachers involved

A third part of their campaign revolves around helping teachers to excite the enthusiasm of their students for technical assignments. “Particularly in primary and the first level of secondary education, teachers struggle to find the right activities for youngsters,” says Herteleer. “In too many cases, the technical activities only involve tinkering with certain materials.”

Think of creative soldering exercises, chemical experiments or working with small electric motors

- Isabelle Herteleer, RTC East Flanders

To show young people what future opportunities lie open to them when they choose to develop their technical skills, the RTCs of East and West Flanders are bringing students to the workfloors of companies and knowledge centres, like Volvo Cars Ghent and Antwerp University. 

To get companies and institutions on board,  the RTCs set up a partnership with the Dutch province of Zeeland, which has been involved in the Bedrijf+School project for four years. On the online platform www.bedrijfplusschool.eu, companies and institutions can list the activities they provide for different age categories.

Technical staff can, for example, give a guest lecture at the school; the class can pay a visit to the work floor; students or teachers can have a so-called snuffelstage, an internship of a few days; students can take part in a technical hands-on assignment. “Think for example of creative soldering exercises, chemical experiments or working with small electric motors,” says Herteleer.

Volvo Cars Ghent has already organised a visit  where students could talk to maintenance technicians. “We are especially interested in organising school visits and internships for final-year technical students, to encourage them to apply for one of our vacancies,” explains Volvo HR manager Annick Stevens. “In the future, we may also offer more hands-on assignments for younger students, like we provide during events like Boetiek Techniek.”

Boetiek Techniek is a fair organised by the City of Ghent and TOFAM East Flanders – a non-profit that promotes the metals sector. “During this event, kids can program simple actions for a robot, for example,” explains Stevens.

Riding the Techniekbus

Thanks to European subsidies, the RTCs can also offer a free bus ride on the Techniekbus to visit companies or centres across the border in Zeeland. In Flanders, the platform currently only includes companies and centres in the provinces of West and East Flanders, but this will change in 2015. The platform currently showcases the activities of about 250 companies and centres in Zeeland and 90 in Flanders.

Both schools and companies are more dedicated when they are situated very close to one another

- Isabelle Herteleer

For its next project,  titled Technical Ambassadors, the two RTCs are again looking for inspiration in the Netherlands but also in Germany, the UK and the Scandinavian countries. The purpose of Technical Ambassadors, also financed with European subsidies, is to increase the efficiency of technical activities organised by schools and companies, customised to different age groups.

By the middle of 2015, the project should empower the technical ambassadors or co-ordinators to assist both parties in setting up concrete projects with tips and tricks. “We are not yet sure about all the details, but one of our main ideas is that we should work locally,” says Herteleer. “Our experience shows that both schools and companies are more dedicated when they are situated very close to one another.”

With similar goals as the Techniek is sjiek campaign, the schools’ umbrella organisations VVKSO, OVSG and GO! have organised the campaign Toch wel technisch (Certainly Technical) and Flemish innovation minister Ingrid Lieten launched the Richting Morgen (Direction Tomorrow) campaign, part of the Flemish government's STEM action plan to support technical studies.

MP Sabine Poleyn last December asked minister Lieten in the Flemish Parliament to bring together these three different campaigns in one big  campaign to promote technical study streams. Lieten answered that she was open to suggestions for collaboration or demands for financial support, but that she was also careful not to put grassroots initiatives in a sort of strait-jacket.