Diary of an engineer: Distance in the training centre

Submitted by AWL on 20 October, 2020 - 4:51 Author: Emma Rickman
Engineering plant

We’ve begun the new college term in strange circumstances. The training centre needs to provide some face-to-face teaching – working remotely and teacher absence hasn’t suited many of the apprentices, and the first years need to do six months of practical workshops. My group is split in two; half of us watch classes remotely, and the other half goes into the training centre, the next week we swap.

The training centre is almost deserted. Staff are secluded in their offices, and everyone indoors is masked. We follow a strict one-way system, and the dining hall is spread with small round tables two metres apart for us to sit, alone, to eat our lunch. The canteen and vending machines are closed, and during the day we’re not permitted to leave site. All food and drink must be bought with us – there’s a rumour a student was sent home for filling her bottle at a water fountain “unsafely”. Students can use the smoking area, and sit alone in their cars, but not drive them anywhere during college hours. A maximum of two people is permitted to a toilet block or a changing room, and there are signs on every door with red hands “Stop! Have you checked the coast is clear?”

Our group takes issue with the regulations immediately, but a more pressing problem is our teaching. We’ve not been given final marks for our work in the previous term when we were working from home, including from a PhD student seized to teach mechanics with no training or notice. To compensate for this, the college are offering evening mathematics tutoring with a senior staff member – however my classmates can’t assess whether they need extra help if they don’t know how they did the first time round, and resent having to give up their evenings.

The Fault-Finding teacher is a tall, white-haired, intimidating man with a finger missing from an accident with a machining tool. His teaching style is very old-school talk-from-the-front, quizzing students at random – he talks too much and too slowly, but no-one interrupts. It takes a few weeks, but when he finally begins talking about machines I understand why this style is effective – he’s knowledgeable and logical, he asks direct questions and draws out the knowledge some students find hard to write down. He frightens us into taking safety more seriously. One of his test questions is: Q: What is one hazard of compressed air? Correct Answer: Compressed air can enter open wounds in the skin, causing air pockets in the bloodstream. ( Christ!)

Our PLC [Programmable Logic Controller] teacher has been with us since the beginning, and he videos-in from home. During lock-down our video chats were ten minutes long with time for questions, then we worked through the lesson content in our own time. Now we have 75-minute classes on screens, with all our activity recorded – we find it tiring, boring, and unproductive. The topic itself is very useful – we all work with PLCs (industrial computers) and need to know how programming works. So why is video learning so unsatisfactory? Is it because of the slight time delay, the inability to read body-language, or because it doesn’t feel real?

Even with the class divided, there are fewer students than there should be. Since the summer three students have been made redundant and two more are worried about it – it’s a frequent topic of conversation. One apprentice is being nudged into a job role he doesn’t want, another is skipping college to do deliveries for a client on the other side of the country. T, who was brilliant at maths and works for a packaging manufacturer, has gone on maternity leave. Relatively speaking the Veolia apprentices consider ourselves on pretty stable ground.

• Emma Rickman is an apprentice engineer at a Combined Heat and Power Plant.

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