Engineers should be at the top table

If you covet a place among the business elite there is some bad news from a new survey of the nation’s board directors — they think a background in engineering and technology means you will not be joining the club.

A poll of directors from the UK’s largest companies revealed that most see engineering as a far less viable route to the top of a business than other disciplines such as sales, marketing or accountancy.

A background in manufacturing, for example, was cited by just 37 per cent as a suitable background for business leadership in the survey by Sainsbury’s Management Fellows (SMF).

So if engineering is languishing, which professional background tops the league table and is seen as bringing most to the boardroom?

Accountancy perhaps? That could make sense, as every business values the ability to not just balance the books but make then look as good as possible. No, accountancy is second, on 88 per cent, narrowly beaten by another discipline seen as even more vital to the modern corporation.

Enough build-up. The winner is… human resources. Yes, HR is cited by 91 per cent of respondents as the prime preparation for a place at the top of the tree.

Now, we are not downplaying the importance of HR to the effective functioning of a business but have to confess to surprise and disappointment.

It seems to The Engineer that these results, if they do accurately reflect the opinion of business leaders, demonstrate a serious lack of awareness of the contribution that people with technical backgrounds can make at the highest level.

In an engineering, technology or manufacturing company, they are the ones who know the fine details of what makes the business tick.

Even in companies that are not engineering-based, why should the qualities that have contributed to a successful technical education and career run into a glass ceiling just below the boardroom?

The main reason given by the SMF’s respondents is their supposed lack of qualifications in the general fields of business and management.

Perhaps at this point we should declare SMF’s interest in carrying out this research. The organisation runs a scholarship scheme to send younger UK engineers to the world’s top business schools and have them return with a coveted MBA qualification.

An excellent initiative for sure but more engineers and technologists should be welcomed to the top table of UK business, whether they hold an MBA or not.

For example, it is difficult to understand the logic behind the very high rating (84 per cent) given to lawyers compared with engineers. Logic may, however, have less to do with things than good, old-fashioned snobbery.

Sadly, this could be yet another example of the general perception that engineers and technologists are fine at building and making stuff but somehow unworthy of having a say in how it should be marketed or sold.

The best companies will use the diverse talents of all disciplines to achieve success.

They are missing a trick by undervaluing the contribution of the technically minded.

Andrew Lee, Editor