Champion for the crafts

Engineering’s parliamentary advocate, Bill Olner, wants it to adapt to new technology – and provide more jobs. Paul Dempsey reports

The Parliamentary Group for Engineering Development is `a catalyst’, according to its new chairman, Nuneaton’s Labour MP Bill Olner. He took over as head of the group, which aims to create links between industry and parliament, from his predecessor, Tim Rathbone, after May’s Tory bloodbath.

Olner acknowledges Rathbone’s work on this all-party body, and that of past and present members: to some extent, his job cuts across political divides.

`Whether you are talking about the group now or under the previous Government, what matters is that everybody joins of their own volition and is passionate about the subject.

`Our role is essentially non-partisan. An MP who wants to do the whole job needs ways and means of taking in knowledge about subjects he has not encountered before – this place is like a great learning university. That is where the group comes in: to promote engineering, but also to act as a channel for those who need to know more.’

This does not mean the PGED is a living library with no particular agenda. Olner highlights a broad range of subjects he wants the group to tackle soon.

`There is already a lot more talk in Parliament about environmental issues, and engineering has got a major contribution to make here,’ he says.

`On one level, there is the debate about the future of the car. But, for example, can engineers do more about public transport? It’s not much help to the environment if most of the buses and taxis are still driving around belching out diesel fumes.’

Not surprisingly, for an MP who sits on both the all-party Cable and Satellite TV group and PITCom (the Parliamentary Information Technology Committee), Olner also argues for engineering’s need to adapt to new technologies, and consider their long-term implications.

In both areas, he notes the PGED depends on the input of eight non-parliamentary members, co-opted from industry and including such figures as the Institute of Directors’ Ruth Lea. The group also maintains strong links with the Royal Academy of Engineering.

But the topic on which Olner becomes most animated is education and, particularly, engineering’s ability to attract quality staff at all levels. It is something that springs from his own experience.

`I left school at 15 with no GCSEs or anything like that and started an apprenticeship as an aeronautical and automobile engineer with Armstrong Siddeley (later Rolls-Royce Aero Engines). What I valued about my apprenticeship was not just the craft it taught me, but the discipline it instilled as well,’ says Olner. `It becomes a model for work and for citizenship, and gives the individual benefits even if he does not stay in that job.’

Olner could put himself forward as a good example. For 25 years, before entering Parliament in 1992, he worked in Coventry as a vertical borer, but also developed a political career in local government, serving as leader of the council and mayor in Nuneaton.

He believes industry’s decision to `close down the apprenticeship route about 10 years ago’ has had social implications in denying opportunities to those who do not prosper in academic environments, and industrial implications leading to today’s skill shortages.

`It distresses me that a lot of young people are overlooked because they are judged on not having enough GCSEs rather than their enthusiasm or craft ability. In my case, the apprenticeship came first and the education part followed. I went to technical college while at Armstrong Siddeley and sat for a City & Guilds,’ he says.

`There is a model here that has been neglected. The big firms are now aware of it and are doing excellent work going out to schools, even primary schools, arranging partnerships and beginning to rekindle the apprenticeship aspiration – but it will take time. And I think that small and medium firms need to move along the same lines. There is a huge resource of skill and ability out there being wasted.’

Even at graduate level, Olner believes the industry needs to rethink its approach. `Companies have to realise that you cannot turn staff on and off like a tap, without far-reaching effects.

`You might have a lad who is thinking of a degree in engineering – it’s his dad’s job. But let’s say that his dad has been made redundant or seen other people go at his company. He’ll say “Look, son, you’ve got to remember what happens in my profession: why don’t you use your brains to become a lawyer, or a doctor, or a vet?” You are going to have trouble attracting people, if those already in the job cannot recommend it down the generations.’

Despite these criticisms, he believes engineering must promote itself. He is an enthusiastic supporter of the Year of Engineering Success campaign, but agrees it appears to have `gone quiet’.

`I think the launch was done excellently, but the problem – and it’s been the problem for any major initiative this year – is that we had a general election. It was a long campaign and it pushed everything else down the agenda, particularly for the media. It has been difficult for schemes like this to regain impetus,’ says Olner.

`Certainly, our group would now be quite prepared to give it every assistance possible, getting out on the stump and talking passionately about engineering.’

That passion is clear: he talks of relishing his group’s role `at a really exciting time’.

`The millennium will be a major boost for constructional engineering, technology and environmental issues are presenting a major challenge, and training is moving back up the agenda,’ he says.

Olner does not quite say `things can only get better’, but he may be thinking it.