Inside view

Features editor

Over the course of today, thirty companies in the automotive sector will be throwing their doors open to teachers, careers advisors and, in some cases, students, as part of an initiative called See Inside Manufacturing. Launched by Vince Cable’s Department for Business, Innovation and Skills earlier this year, SIM is the latest attempt from government and industry to dispel the misconceptions surrounding engineering, technology and manufacturing, and present it as an attractive option for schoolchildren looking for a career.

This year is a single-sector pilot; today’s events are primarily aimed at teachers, while the companies involved will be inviting students during the third week of October. But there’s an encouraging range of companies taking part, from volume manufacturers like Ford, Honda and BMW’s Mini plant, to the premium producers like Bentley, Lotus, Jaguar Land Rover and Aston Martin, and including Formula 1 teams such as McLaren (which is also involving its new sports car offshoot McLaren Automotive) and Williams, plus specialist supply chain stalwarts like GKN Driveline and Ricardo.

These companies certainly offer a wide range of roles for engineers and can showcase the different skills needed in this sector, and this is a laudable initiative to address a real problem. The organiser of the events at McLaren told me that a poll among 7-11 year olds showed that the overwhelming impression of engineering was that it was ‘boring’ — pretty much the most damning indictment that a preteen can give anything. And it’s certain that schools and careers advisors don’t give engineering a decent push. We can all think of reasons for this — the demise of the large-scale industrial employers that once dominated the life of towns and cities; the general decline in the status of engineers since the Second World War; the links between industrial pollution and environmental concerns.

But in a way, it’s a shame that the initiative was focused so narrowly on the automotive sector. It would be easy for schoolchildren, especially, to come away with the impression that ‘engineering is about building cars’. Go around most automotive plants and what you’ll see are people doing repetitive tasks, even though they’re a far cry from the popular images of car production, which are usually rooted in the 1970s. Hopefully, the manufacturers will have arranged a good spread of different areas for their tours and presentations to show off engineers’ roles in design, testing, and other areas as well.

Of course, those attending open days at the glamour end of the industry, motorsport and premium cars, will get a very different impression from those in the more everyday manufacturers. It might be difficult for them to show the full range of possibilities, and this is where a wider spread of sectors might have helped — and hopefully will help in the future. As the BBC’s Made in Britain documentary series is showing, the full range of engineering activity in the UK is still largely hidden from view and under appreciated.

But the industy itself must take some of the blame for this. You can’t complain about being unknown if you don’t take any steps to make yourself known, and you can’t moan about your status in society if you don’t engage with society. Some companies and organisations are beginning to take notice of this, and another highly encouraging initiative taking place this month, the Royal Society Summer Exhibition, will help to showcase some of the inspiring possibilities of science and engineering. A huge success last year, this event brings researchers to the public with hands-on demonstrations and one-on-one encounters with working researchers. Attending this can leave you in no doubt that the best advertisement for science and engineering is, in fact, scientists and engineers.

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