Saturday, 25 October 2014
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Engineering and expectations

Earlier in the week I turned 43 and it’s fair to say that the misanthropic side of my personality grows stronger as each year passes.

Certain behaviours rankle more than others but the one that is certain to get me in a lather every time is the apparent lack of consideration shown by some to others in public places.

This comes in many forms. For example, have you ever held a door open for a stranger, only for that person to breeze past without acknowledging your existence?

Or the person walking down the street with all their attention on a smartphone and very little else?

The so-called smartphone is meant to herald a new era in interactivity but from where I’m sitting it has created a nation of Borg-like drones who ‘interact’ wirelessly without giving much heed to the very real people who surround them.

It’s also fair to say that the demographic targeted in this burst of blog-based ire tends toward younger members of society.

It isn’t, of course, their fault. They’re young and each generation exhibits certain behaviours that grumpy gits like me find a bit strange. One commentator in the US goes as far as describing some young adults in their 20s as having ‘narcissistic personality disorder’, a seemingly caustic summation of the very nature of being ‘young’.

It gets worse, with two reports suggesting that young people aren’t much use in the workplace either.

A recent survey by the Forum of Private Business (FPB) concluded that a number of school leavers lacked ‘job-ready skills’ and a work ethic, a point backed up today in a report from IMechE.

Manufacturing a Successful Economy 2013 - a survey of 1,000 British manufacturers - found that 38 per cent of apprentices, graduates and new recruits lacked a proper work ethic to succeed in industry. Furthermore, 57 per cent of this group were deemed to lack practical skills, 42 per cent of respondents said they lacked communication skills, and 36 per cent said good maths and science were in short supply too.

Phil Orford, chief executive of FPB said employers need, but often can’t find, youngsters ready to hit the ground running – starting with a positive work ethic.

The usual gut-reaction to surveys like these is to question the quality of education and work experience or work shadowing offered through schools but on this occasion one wonders if these conclusions are entirely fair.

It would be normal to assume that youngsters entering a manufacturing position should have a sound grasp of maths and it is worrying that over a third are seen as deficient in this area.

However, 71 per cent of IMechE’s respondents believe apprentices, graduates, new recruits lack management skills, which on the face it appears to be a questionable position to hold against people at the start of their working life.

It would be interesting to gather some statistics from young people on their perceptions of the workplace, given that certain companies are culpable when it comes to a lack of effort in steering new hires along the correct path.

Anecdotally, I’ve heard two examples of large firms failing to give their graduate intake anything to do, let alone encourage management or leadership.

One Cambridge University graduate complained that his work placement at a large electronics company was so poorly organized that he spent a significant portion of his working day hiding in the toilets. Another, a graduate of Bournemouth University, joined the annual intake at a large telecommunications company and found - after training - that there wasn’t a tangible, challenging job to do. She left that company to successfully start one of her own, demonstrating a certain degree of management and leadership apparently lacking today.

The question of what ‘soft skills’ should be brought into the workplace by people offered a position, and to what extent it’s the employer’s responsibility to train their employees, is clearly open to debate. If someone has the aptitude to manage or lead then those skills will become apparent as they settle into their job and learn the culture of their organisation.

The very worrying aspect of IMechE’s survey, however, is the number of respondents that are struggling to fill positions: 60 per cent said that they were finding it difficult to recruit design engineers, 39 per cent said they have difficulty recruiting people with skills in production and 36 per cent said they were struggling to find new product specialists.

Criticising young people already in positions is one thing. Getting them to come on board in the first place remains the overriding challenge.

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Readers' comments (15)

  • Government need to halt the flow of opportunities to the SE and the IET really needs to evaluate its position and its own responsibilities in this manner.
    Good engineers have the right mindset and not necessarily just academic qualifications.

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  • Far from the young not having the required skills, the bane of my life is Project Mangers who I would not employ to empty the bins. People who, through the complete absence of skills to do the job themselves, have found themselves in a position to tell others. I have considered writing my memoirs "Forty Years as a Journeyman Programmer" but I found it too hard to convey just how utterly useless were some of the Project Managers I had to report to without it sounding just too implausible.

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  • Grumpy old man. That's me. The company didn't pay for training all these years and I wasted my own money on a useless MBA. Now I don't have the skills to compete with the younger generation.

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  • I started working as a technician in the mid 60's and worked my way up to engineering and finally management in a small power supply company. That companies practice was to tie promising employees to engineers who could teach them the ropes and allow them to develop.

    One problem i see on this side of the pond is all hiring is in the hands of human resources and they develop a long list of requirements for each position to be filled so promising candidates never get passed the HR department. When I was hired they assumed if I knew X I could learn Y and that's the way my whole career went. I was constantly asked to do things that were outside my experience and that helped develop me into a well rounded engineer who had a broad range of skills. The man who ran this company believed he could build a better engineer than he could hire because a lot of them were trained in house and none of us ever had a problem finding a job because of the broad experience we go there.

    Somebody out of school has a lot to learn and pairing them with a seasoned mentor goes a long way towards developing the king of engineering talent we need.

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  • The comment 'One Cambridge University graduate complained .. he spent a significant portion of his working day hiding in the toilets.'

    If universities are churning out graduates with this level of initiative then think we know where the problem lies! If you don't have anything to do you go and ask or find something to do - even its reading the company manuals. Guess the company had a near escape.

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  • "If you run a company make sure you do not have an HR Manger. If you do have to make sure you have only one. If you do have to have two make sure they never meet".
    Tom DeMarco.

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  • Engineers do for 10p what any fool can do for £1.00.[Nevil Shute Norway-Engineer & Author]
    Yes, I excuse young Engineers and school leavers for not having the ability to go straight to the optimum solution to a problem: education if you are lucky teaches you how to spell experience?

    HR- I agree with deMarco, via Adrian T: though I would add that any senior Engineer who has a PA with that title should be fined $500 a day until they get them a proper job.
    A plea: can we place a moratorium both in your columns and the wider quality meja on the concept of 'churning-out' anything and certainly not graduates.

    Mike B

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  • I would echo Bob Cleary's comments wholeheartedly. As I see the situation having been in the workforce for 50 years the bane of engineering comes in three forms, the lack of direction given and change in teaching methods in education, the foreshortening of apprenticeships because employers want skills quicker, and the sometimes greater influence the bean counters have on how the job is done. I wouldn't say that solving these will solve all our woes but surely would go some way toward doing so.

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  • Jason I am still working, am twice your age and much more grumpy. Bravo Bob Cleary he makes sense, it was how I received my industrial training and practised when I was the 'boss'. Several of my trainees and those I mentored adopted my management style and practice; flattering but it works to-day. I also agree with him keep HR out of recruitment, add to his list psychologists and MBA's now often too narrow. Most mean well but do not understand engineers and engineering.
    I blame Company management, educators and government all lack understanding.

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  • I was fortunate enough to be sponsored through University, starting with a year in industry immediately following my A levels. This was a hell of a shock, but prepared me well for the reality of life within a Company once I graduated. It's a tragedy that these opportunities don't still exist: about 2/3rds of my year were sponsored.

    We also have to look at the spectacular failure of the Education system from primary through to University. Standards have plummeted, that's a simple fact easily demonstrated. The fourth year of an MEng involves seemingly little contact time teaching and is dominated by project work. The contact time for an MEng is much less than a BSc used to have. At A level, contact time has halved over thirty years. We also suffer from the idiotic modular system where, once a module has been completed it is allowed to be forgotten and not built on. Hence, when one asks a graduate candidate a simple strength of materials question, usually tackled it seems in year two, they are unable to recover the information. This stuff is needed almost on a daily basis in a design office. Even worse, ask one to solve a simple differential equation and you'll see a rush for the door.

    This is not the fault of the individuals, it's the fault of the Education system, and the Engineering institutions in accrediting degrees that are manifestly not fit for purpose.

    One could add the lack of any requirement for practical skills or experience, but I'm already seething thinking about how badly young Engineers are being let down.

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