Apprenticeships and careers

Senior reporter

So it turns out that engineers don’t make that bad businesspeople after all: Alan Sugar last night decided to pick inventor and engineering graduate Tom Pellereau as the winner of this year’s Apprentice TV show.

Despite having decried the commercial sensibilities of engineers earlier in the series, Lord Sugar chose to reward Pellereau’s ability to come up with ideas and develop them for the market with a £250,000 investment and partnership in a new business.

Strangely, Lord Sugar made no mention of his turnaround of opinion and none of the guests on last night’s final episode questioned him on it. But the engineering community should feel vindicated at the former Amstrad boss’s recognition of his need to work with people who understand problem solving, technology and product design as well as sales.

While one high-profile engineer is celebrating, other news suggests some graduates are not faring so well. Those with engineering and technology degrees who finished their studies last year are among the most likely to still be unemployed, according to Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA).

Around 12.3 per cent of recent engineering graduates were unemployed in HESA’s survey, compared to 9.6 per cent overall and putting the subject above only computer science and communication. But how does such a disappointing statistic reconcile with the constant message from engineering firms of a skills shortage?

The IET will tomorrow publish its latest report, Skills & Demand in Industry Annual Survey 2011. Head of policy Paul Davies said the HESA figures gave a contrary picture to the IET’s data.

Of 400 companies surveyed from across the UK’s engineering sector, Davies told The Engineer, 47 percent said they were recruiting engineers and 34 per cent of those said they were having problems finding suitable graduates.

While most said they were happy with the quality of degrees, the biggest problem was a lack of practical experience. However, Davies also pointed out that further data from HESA showed that a higher proportion of engineers secured professional roles than almost any other graduate group.

Chris Kirby, head of education and skills at the IMechE, argued that the HESA statistics didn’t give the full picture. ‘Some subjects, such as medicine and law, are less vulnerable to economic change,’ he told The Engineer. ‘Take them out and engineers are much closer to the average unemployment rate.’

He also pointed out that six months is not a very long time for graduates and that looking at data on those who graduated from university three and a half years ago showed that, in the longer term, engineers performed better in the job market than any other graduate group except for those in medicine.

Leicester University’s Helen Atkinson, Royal Academy of Engineering fellow and president of the Engineering Professors’ Council, is leading research to unpick this problem following similar statistics that came out last year.

She said that engineers may have been hit particularly hard because of the collapse of industries such as construction, while the overall figures may mask regional variations related to the fact that the economic recovery is much stronger in the southeast of England than anywhere else. We can expect to see the results of her study in six to nine months.

Looking to the rest of the week, Thursday 21 July is the start of the government’s manufacturing regulation consultation. ‘The Red Tape Challenge really is a rare opportunity for manufacturers to have their say on the regulations that affect them,’ said Neale Ryan of the Manufacturing Advisory Service (MAS). ‘That’s why MAS is urging manufacturers to take part and tell the Government what changes they would like to see.’

A likely hot topic will be environmental regulation, particularly that related to climate change. Mark Potts of automotive parts manufacturer Gestamp said a number of regulations increased the burden on manufacturers without delivering any obvious benefits.

‘I, for example, would like to see a reversal of the lowering of both the Climate Change Levy threshold, which will penalise smaller energy intensive companies such as ours, and Feed In Tariffs (FITs), which will affect the commercial viability of installing green technologies, such as solar panels.’

But for those working within the so-called green economy, the key will be refining regulation not stripping it back. The recent annual report from the Environmental Industries Commission (EIC) argued that only a strong policy framework would allow the UK to exploit the vast commercial opportunities created by the need to address greenhouse gas emissions.

Those wishing to have their views heard by ministers should visit the Red Tape Challenge website before 11 August.