Engineering and expectations

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The Engineer’s budding Grumpy Old Man comes to the defence of the younger generation, unfairly criticised for lacking in skills they shouldn’t be expected to have at the start of their careers

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.