Peter Wason learned to appreciate the ingenuity and skill of Britain’s incorporated engineers and technicians in extreme circumstances. He was in the Royal Navy, serving in the Falklands War. His Leander-class frigate, HMS Argonaut, was severely damaged in a bombing raid over San Carlos Water. Two members of the crew lost their lives. Bombs had lodged in the boiler room and in the main magazine, stuck between two missiles.
The bombs were defused. But, with gaping holes in the hull and main machinery that seemed beyond repair, the ship looked like a sitting duck. Miraculously, the engineering crew managed to salvage what was repairable and workable, allowing the ship to stagger back to Plymouth.
‘It was only thanks to the incorporated engineers and technicians on board that we managed to get the ship back in one piece. It gave me very a healthy respect for their work and, in some ways, that was a turning point in my career,’ Wason recalls.
Wason’s naval career spanned 29 years, from when he joined at the age of 21, fresh out of Southampton University with a degree in electrical engineering, to his retirement five years ago, aged 50, having reached the rank of captain.
Last week, that career took a new direction with his appointment as secretary and chief executive of the new Institution of Incorporated Engineers. A 40,000-strong body, it has been developed from the merger of three organisations for incorporated engineers in electronics, electrical and mechanical engineering, and engineering technicians.
Wason himself is a chartered engineer. He has been responsible for weapons engineering for most of his career, and his last job in the Navy was as commander of the weapons engineering training establishment HMS Collingwood located at Fareham in Hampshire.
The transition to civilian life has been relatively smooth for Wason: he found work for Vosper Thorneycroft developing a customer training centre, mainly for foreign navies but also selling back training services to the Royal Navy. ‘I basically created a mini-Collingwood,’ he says. Two years later he moved to the Institution of Mechanical Engineers as director of professional development. From there he was approached and asked to take the helm at the newly formed Institution of Incorporated Engineers.
Wason joins a long line of ex-servicemen who seem to find management jobs in the professional institutions. ‘In many ways it’s right up our street,’ he says. ‘We are a pretty flexible lot and we’re able to turn our hands to many different kinds of jobs, and we are used to dealing with committees.’
Two out of the three people Wason appointed during his spell at the IMechE were also ex-Navy. ‘It’s not an old-boy network,’ Wason insists. ‘They just turned out to be very good.’
People often leave the services in their late 40s or early 50s, with a good deal of varied experience and an ability to organise. ‘If you leave industry to join an institution at that age, it may be more difficult to go back to industry again,’ Wason suggests. ‘Which means that candidates from industry tend to be at the end of their careers, or else too young, with not really enough experience.’
Wason aims to work with the IIE committees and members to give the new organisation a strong voice within industry. He will need to attract a higher share of the 100,000 or so incorporated engineers in the market, and, eventually, to increase the numbers practising in Britain.
The timing for this initiative looks right: smaller institutions are feeling increasing financial strains, and the amalgamation of central services makes economic sense. Furthermore, the multidisciplinary nature of engineering is reflected in the IIE’s inclusion of mechanical, electronic and electrical engineers.
The extra clout of a large institution will be important over the next few years. According to Wason, there are too many chartered engineers, and not enough of the more practically trained incorporated engineers. The split should be 30:70 in favour of incorporated, and not the other way round, he says.
But it’s far from simple. Industry wants more engineers with more practical skills, but is not entirely clear that incorporated engineers fit the bill. So, companies need persuading. Meanwhile, on the supply side, universities need to be convinced to start running new kinds of engineering honours degree courses that will lead to IEng status, rather than CEng. And, to make the courses work, teenagers must be persuaded that these degrees are worth doing.
‘I have had consistent feedback from industry that many employers are not satisfied with the kind of embryo young engineers straight out of university, who are often not appropriately prepared for the job they have to do,’ Wason says. ‘But when I describe the incorporated engineer skill-set, this turns out to be exactly the kind of person they are after. We need to make sure that the new engineering degrees are fit for purpose, and not some watered down version of a chartered engineer degree.’
Students can join the IIE for just £11.50 per year, but fees for full members range from £42 to £49 per year, depending on age. This means the IIE’s annual income from members will be about £2m.
Wason is hoping to increase this significantly with additional income from advertising within its publications. More cash will be essential if the IIE is to take its message forcefully to industry, academia and the public across the UK.
‘I readily accept that I am not qualified to do the jobs that our members do. But promoting the cause of the incorporated engineers in Britain is something I believe in very strongly,’ he says.