With the next election looming, we asked some of the UK’s top engineers how government could help the sector
As the new decade dawns, there’s a temptation to try to make predictions. But as predictions have a habit of being inaccurate, we’ll stick to one that we can be sure of. There will be a general election in the UK this year.
And for the country’s engineers and technologists this could have far-reaching consequences. With the finance sector - the engine of the UK’s economy for the past three decades - still in disarray and disgrace after the banking collapse, many believe that engineering and manufacturing should resume its place at the forefront of wealth creation. Making things, the argument goes, is a more sustainable and concrete activity than just making money. But how could politicians help? Should they, indeed, help at all?
We asked some of the leading figures in UK engineering across a variety of sectors what they thought about some of the issues affecting industry as the first decade of the 21st century stutters to a close. Their views are personal and do not necessarily reflect the policy of the organisations they work for, but they reveal some common points of view on these issues, although different ideas on how to tackle them.
There was, however, one point on which all our respondents agreed - many of the problems of engineering are down to the status of engineers in UK society and that has to improve for any major progress to take place.
- What would be the advantages and disadvantages of the government appointing a ‘Chief Engineering Advisor’?
- What are the highest priority areas for government spending to enhance the UK’s capability in your sector, and in technology in general?
- Which recent government policies have been particularly effective for your sector, and which (if any) have been a hindrance?
- Which of the engineering and technology sectors are underperforming in the UK currently, and what could be done to boost them?
- From what you’ve seen so far, which of the main political parties has the best policies to addres these issues?
- Which areas of technology research do you think are best coordinated by the European Union, and which are better left within the UK?
- What are the biggest opportunities for growth in your sector, in the short and medium terms?
- What is the best way to approach technological goals in the long term, (ie, with results more than five years off)? Can and should government play a role here?
- What do you think of the current status of engineers in the UK? What can be done to enhance it?
Read our respondents’ replies in full, by clicking on their names or following the links at the bottom of this story
Take the idea that the UK should have a chief engineer, alongside the chief scientific and medical officers. Although this was met with widespread approval when it was proposed by the House of Commons Committee on Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills last April, our experts were divided over whether this was a good idea. Neil Kermode of EMEC couldn’t see any disadvantages to having someone able to provide consistent comment and advice on issues of a technical nature and long timescale. ‘It worked in the Second World War with the appointment of Dr RV Jones and his team; it will work now,’ he said. Paul Newsome of Lotus went even further, calling the chief engineering advisor role ‘a necessary step to enhance the industry’s importance in government standing’. Advice from engineering experts is often sought much too late in the policy-making process, which leads to missed opportunities and extra costs, he pointed out. Meanwhile, Kevin McLeod of BAE Systems - a former senior civil servant in the MoD - said that an engineer within the Treasury, one of the recommendations of the Commons Committee report, was a particularly good idea, to help inform and enable better decision-making when it came to budgets. ‘And quick as a flash,’ he added, ‘nothing happened.’
The perception of engineering as the poor relation of science and medicine was raised by several of our respondents, who also said that the medical and scientific officers already do vital work and can’t be expected to take on engineering advice as well. ‘Engineering represents the application and commercial exploitation of science, and in many respects is more significant to the economy,’ said Network Rail’s Jerry England.
David Bonser of Westinghouse said that yet another government advisor might not be a good thing, although he noted that this disadvantage would be outweighed by the advantages of having someone to point out the impact of engineering on policy objectives and vice-versa.
However, for the sectors closer to the market, there was some scepticism over the role that a chief engineer might play. Paul Nieuwenhuis of Cardiff Univeristy’s centre for automotive industry research doubted whether there would be much relevance for the automotive sector, and in the oil and gas sector, GE’s Bobby Voss said that it wasn’t clear why there was a need to differentiate between engineering and science in terms of policy. Ali Jawad, from GE’s industrial automation division, pointed out that this office could become merely another layer of bureaucracy ‘that may become ineffective over time and part of the establishment, rather than a true conduit for the engineering community at large.’
Opinions over where government money should best be spent to enhance capability centred around areas with a low-carbon slant. ‘The UK has the potential to become a global leader in the development of ultra-low carbon vehicles, but it is important the government shows that the UK is an attractive option for inward investment by global automotive companies,’ said Paul Newsome. ‘The long-term goal is to decarbonise transport and industry, and industry and government need to work together to ensure this happens. This is why the appointment of a chief engineering advisor is vital to the long-term success of the sector.’
‘the appointment of a chief engineering advisor is vital to the long-term success of the sector.’
Paul Newsome, Lotus
There was also a strong opinion that more must be spent on education and training at all levels of engineering, from graduate engineers ‘to technicians and craftsmen’, as Westinghouse UK’s David Bonser put it. Jerry England, Engineering Director at Network Rail, agreed: ‘We have lost our manufacturing industry largely because our labour rates are uncompetitive in a world market, but there is no reason why we cannot develop the next generation of “manufacturing” industries in a competitive way,’ he said. ‘The UK has an opportunity to develop a sustainable and healthy manufacturing base, based on high-end, value-added engineering, focusing on leading-edge research and development.’
Paul Nieuwenhuis called attention to another long-standing shortfall in British industrial policy. ‘It’s important to note that in many cases, the main challenge isn’t so much the technology, as bringing the technology to market,’ he said. ‘The “softer” issues of business, consumer psychology, incentives, appropriate policies and so on, are cheaper to fund, but very important to include at this stage.’
The state of the engineering industry sector by sector is difficult to quantify; many respondents picked out aerospace, pharmaceuticals and defence as strong sectors, while Jerry England noted that the UK tends to be strong in niche areas: ‘We lead the world in motor racing, but our automotive sector is weak,’ he said. Somewhat surprisingly, Paul Newsome thought the engineering sector as a whole was thriving; Lotus Engineering, he noted, achieved a 23 per cent increase in third-party client work last year, even in a difficult trading environment.
None of the respondents could see any particular differences in the main parties’ policies concerning engineering and technology, although whether this is good news or bad wasn’t clear. Jerry England has a pessimistic view: ‘There hasn’t been much evidence that any of the political parties have a clear strategy to develop and grow the engineering and technology sectors in the UK,’ he says. Neil Kermode says: ‘No one knows who will be in power when technology is ready, so it makes sense to have all possible parties signed up to the plan at top level from the start,’ he said. ‘Set sufficient budget to get it done through whatever means appropriate, but make sure all parties can bask in whatever glory can be created as it goes along.’
But the biggest message of our survey is that leading figures still see engineering as being drastically undervalued. ‘There’s been a slow devaluation of the word “engineer” over the past 50 years, such that the pain and grief that what I’d refer to as an engineer has to go through to get qualified just isn’t understood,’ said Kevin McLeod.
Paul Newsome came up with a definition of engineering that he thinks reflects its true role. ‘Engineers create and share knowledge to provide the government, business and public with fresh thinking and authoritative guidance’, he said, ‘and it is very important that the industry not only prospers, but also grows so engineers can continue to come up with the solutions that will make a brighter future for everyone.’
The panel - click on the name to read their replies in full
- David Bonser Chairman, Westinghouse UK
- Stephen Burgin Head of Alstom Power UK
- Jerry England Engineering director, Network Rail
- Walter King Head, Head, Science & Technologies, Consumables, Life Sciences - GE Healthcare
- Ali Jawad Engineering leader, GE Fanuc Intelligent Platforms
- Neil Kermode Managing director, European Marine Energy Centre
- Simon Larcombe Engineering lead, Altair
- Kevin McLeod Engineering director, BAE Systems Surface Ships
- Paul Methven Technical director, Dowty Propellors, GE Aviation Systems
- Paul Newsome Managing director, Lotus Engineering
- Paul Nieuwenhuis Co-director, Centre for Automotive Industry Research, Cardiff University
- Rob Twiney EMEA technology leader, GE Advanced Sensors
- Bobby Voss R&D director for Subsea Production Systems, GE Oil & Gas
Enhancing the status of engineers
Our respondents’ plans for enhancing the status of engineers focus around two ideas, one within government and one from the engineering institutions themselves. First, they all believe that engineering needs more representation within government, whether or not from a formal chief engineering advisor. Second, they believe engineers need to connect a lot more with education to ensure future generations have a clear idea exactly what it is that engineers do, and what they don’t.
‘Government, business and education providers must work together to develop a long-term strategy,’ said Paul Newsome. ‘A lack of new engineers could jeopardise economic recovery.’
Paul Nieuwenhuis thinks engineering already has a potentially strong hand. ‘It is clear that some of the more glamorous engineering environments the UK can offer, such as motor sport, are attractive to students. If we can make low-carbon technologies equally attractive, we can attract people in.’
David Bonser called for engineers themselves to get more involved. ‘We need more good role models of engineers showing not only the varied and interesting jobs that they do, but the depth of skill and training that they have. Engineers should be seen as being at the heart of our economy, not simply as the people who fix our cars and domestic appliances.’
Jerry England also thinks that engineers don’t do enough themselves and believes professional associations are partly to blame. ‘The status of engineers is undermined somewhat by the fragmented nature of the 36 professional bodies,’ he said.
‘Seek to get “engineer” protected,’ said Neil Kermode. ‘If you aren’t chartered, you don’t get to use the title; so my boiler will have been designed by an engineer, but installed by a plumber or a boiler technician. It sounds elitist, but that is what status is founded upon.’
Ali Jawad shares this point of view and thinks the damage it causes can’t be underestimated. ‘Currently, engineering is considered to be a second-rate profession and is definitely less prestigious than professions such as law or dentistry. This is evident from university intake where engineering tends to miss out on the brightest and most academically able students,’ he said. ‘There is a need to grant professional status to engineering and award the title “engineer” through registration with professional bodies where engineers are granted accreditation to be able to practice.’
Kermode thinks the path towards this goal might be rocky, however. ‘It will take a generation to get this back and possibly some prosecutions, but it needs to be done.’