Belief in life after Yes

Last year’s £1.3m campaign to boost the profile of engineering, the Year of Engineering Success (Yes), began with high hopes, glitz and glamour but ended in rather less favourable circumstances. Critics accused the organisers of running up extravagant corporate hospitality bills though these criticisms were later dismissed while failing to achieve the campaign aims. Yes […]

Last year’s £1.3m campaign to boost the profile of engineering, the Year of Engineering Success (Yes), began with high hopes, glitz and glamour but ended in rather less favourable circumstances. Critics accused the organisers of running up extravagant corporate hospitality bills though these criticisms were later dismissed while failing to achieve the campaign aims.

Yes was born out of a meeting between Michael Heseltine, then Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, and John Williams, chief executive of the Institution of Electrical Engineers (IEE). Its aims were to transform engineering’s image to make it more appealing as a career, thereby helping to ease skill shortages facing the profession.

But celebrations of the campaign’s conclusion turned sour. At the end of last year the 20 staff hired to run it were laid off and Yes director-general Dr Mary Harris slipped quietly back to her post as head of technology strategy at British Gas after her two-year secondment.

Undaunted by critics, earlier this year the IEE launched a five-year follow-up campaign, managed by a new company called Quinco. The mission of the as yet unnamed campaign is to ensure that engineering ‘makes the fullest possible contribution to the nation’s wealth and quality of life’. The man managing the programme is Alex McDiarmid, who took up chairmanship of Quinco in March. Like his predecessor, he has a background with British Gas, but he is hoping to achieve a better track record with the new campaign.

‘I passionately believe in engineering as the wealth creator in the UK,’ he says. ‘If we wish the UK to be successful at a world level in the future, we must have a strong engineering base.’

McDiarmid has kept a low profile at Quinco so far, determined that the goal of the campaign should take precedence over personalities. He is a reluctant interviewee, and would not even reveal his date of birth.

Formerly regional director of British Gas’s East Midlands division, McDiarmid is a chartered engineer who now works as a consultant in the energy sector. When appointed to Quinco, he said the challenge for the next five years was ‘to take the best of the achievements of Yes and other engineering initiatives and build on them in a sustained way’.

So what were those successes? Despite the bad publicity, McDiarmid says the pile of positive press cuttings in his office is two feet high. He is also upbeat about the 5,000 or more events Yes ran last year. These were successful, he says, in raising general awareness of the value of engineering. They ranged from open days at various engineering employers to the Tomorrow’s World Live technology showcase at the Birmingham NEC, which was visited by almost 40,000 people.

‘Significant coverage of engineering was generated and significant numbers of the public were brought face-to-face with engineering. Significant partnerships of industry, employers, the profession and education were also brought together,’ he says.

McDiarmid believes this network of partnerships was a major unseen success of 1997, which Quinco will build on, though he is scaling down the number of national events.

One project that will run under the Quinco banner is the multi-million pound advertising campaign announced in February by the Engineering Council, the Engineering Employers’ Federation (EEF) and the Engineering and Marine Training Authority (EMTA). It is likely to involve a television campaign to promote the profession’s image, especially to youngsters.

As with the Yes campaign, Quinco’s funding will come mainly from engineering firms and bodies. Quinco is aiming for 50 patrons and each will donate £10,000 a year in return for a place on its board.

All the Quinco patrons so far were either heavily involved in Yes or former patrons, says McDiarmid. The EEF has only just come on board, however. The employers’ body was highly critical of the Yes campaign. In particular, it recommended that Quinco devise a ‘meaningful business plan’, and incorporate a benchmarking project to measure how much the image of the profession is changing. ‘Both were noticeably absent from the Yes campaign,’ said an EEF spokesman.

No details of the business plan have yet been released by Quinco but the EEF has approved a draft version.

McDiarmid believes the new campaign will benefit from having a longer time frame than its predecessor.

He has a clear vision of the profession’s future image and role: ‘Engineering will be seen as a problem solver and a contributor to business wealth, while parents, teachers and careers advisers will guide more of the nation’s brightest and best youngsters towards a rewarding career in the profession.’

Fine words, but as McDiarmid himself is happy to concede, he will be judged by results.