Big Rig: Britain a Nation that Makes Things Again

I left wanting to retrain as a Plumber. That was no small achievement for Britain’s Energy Coast Construction Skills Centre (“BECCSC”). I was an “academic” student at secondary school: I excelled at writing and in core academic subjects.

I never took to CDT (Craft, Design and Technology): I had no spatial awareness and was cack-handed with equipment. But I didn’t think that mattered: it was an optional subject and, in any event, the tried and tested way to career success involved A’Levels, a degree from a top university and plenty of essay-writing.

BECCSC told a different story.

BECCSC is part of Lakes College, Workington, which includes the original FE College of 5000 students, Energus (the Nuclear Skills Academy) and a University Technical College offering vocational education to 14-19 year olds. The University of Cumbria also has an outpost there.

A new nuclear power station is planned adjacent to nearby Sellafield and figures show that this will involve up to 22,000 construction jobs. If local people are to benefit from these opportunities then they need to be trained in large numbers as plumbers, electricians, welders, joiners, painters & decorators and roofers.

BECCSC has a specialised workshop dedicated to every trade. So the roofing workshop has a model roof on which students can practice; the plumbing workshop is filled with bath tubs and toilets; the electrician workshop has practice light fittings students can learn to mend; the welding workshop is full of manufacturing facilities.

There are two joinery rooms: one where students can learn construction skills such as building staircases and the other where students learn traditional bench skills and there is evidence of real pride in old-fashioned craftsmanship dating back to an era before IKEA flat packs and MFI bargains.

The capstone is the Big Rig – a model Sellafield facility – where students on placement from universities work as part of teams to design a Sellafield “process”. Here, Business, Innovation and Education collide to create something where the next generation of nuclear scientists learn to develop “cutting edge” research. Not merely training for jobs but creating them too.

On a recent visit to Cambridge, I learnt that the city’s international leadership in research means that it isn’t so much a place that has industries but creates new industries via innovation. So, a Cambridge professor invents the Thermos Flask and then someone somewhere else opens up a factory making Thermos flasks.

Similarly, BECCSC doesn’t simply train people for anticipated construction jobs at Sellafield; it also creates jobs. Construction, Manufacturing and Engineering companies, looking to relocate, need a trained workforce and here, they have a ready-made supply.

More importantly, every student successfully qualifying via BECCSC leaves capable of creating wealth: working as sole traders, setting up companies, solving old problems and creating new solutions. In this context, it baffles me why my History degree is somehow considered more prestigious than a plumbing apprenticeship. I did not graduate with the skills and abilities to create wealth; I had no skills I could trade nor capacity for innovation.

If we want our the next generation to be at the cutting edge of innovation in the 21st we need to recalibrate their vision of what “success” looks like. The quality of facilities at BECCSC can – and should – attract the brightest and best students. And that is how it should be. Let’s become a nation that “makes things” again.