Who wants to be an engineer?

It seems that not enough people are interested, but industry is doing its level best to tempt new graduates into the profession. George Paloczi-Horvath reports on the campaign The skills shortage is prompting new initiatives to tempt young people into engineering and is concentrating minds on what industry leaders say is the urgent need to […]

It seems that not enough people are interested, but industry is doing its level best to tempt new graduates into the profession.

George Paloczi-Horvath reports on the campaign

The skills shortage is prompting new initiatives to tempt young people into engineering and is concentrating minds on what industry leaders say is the urgent need to improve engineering’s image.

Dr Mary Harris, director general of the Year of Engineering Success (Yes) campaign, warns that `the statistical picture we have through our Yes regional sources and regional companies supporting the campaign indicate there is a shortfall in the take-up of apprenticeships and engineering places at university’.

A fortnight ago engineering leaders launched an initiative aimed at training and development. The key aim, says Graham Mackenzie, EEF’s director general, is to boost engineering’s status and thereby boost the number of engineers.

To this end the EEF and the Engineering Council published two guides, Engineering our Future and Engineering your Future, aimed at employers and graduates.

The first asks if employers are doing all they can to develop the careers of their staff and includes a self-assessment questionnaire and case studies of how companies approach training.

Engineering your Future is a pocket guide to how young engineers can measure and plan their careers; 50,000 engineering graduates will get a copy this year. Both guides list eight principles of good practice for graduates and older engineers alike.

The first principle deals with the prospective engineer’s initial question: how do I get into the profession? Students are advised to look for opportunities to obtain engineering experience through sponsorship, company placements and projects, plus holiday work.

According to the second principle, would-be engineers should not rely on an interview alone to communicate personal competence to an employer. They are told to volunteer for psychometric and aptitude tests and role play if the company does not already require them.

A third principle, `planned induction’, simply means that a recruit must find all the information needed to do the job well.

Mentoring is the fourth principle – the need to seek out more experienced colleagues to provide regular confidential advice.

`Do not try and go it alone,’ is key to the fifth principle, the need to strive for early, but supervised operational responsibility.

The final three principles apply throughout a career. The sixth covers the need for employer appraisals at least every year. The seventh says an engineer needs a longer term career development view which should be discussed with employers, while the eighth is membership of an appropriate professional institution.

At the launch, Rolls-Royce chairman Sir Ralph Robins said: `While there is no set timetable to implement any of the principles, I suggest you set yourself some challenging targets.’

Even before would-be engineers reach higher education, much can be done to attract them. The Engineering and Marine Training Authority has taken the lead, publishing some helpful brochures in the Engineering Careers series.

Some companies are taking active measures to deal with the skills shortage. Crawley-based Thomson Training & Simulation is forming links with local schools through their neighbourhood engineers’ groups. Communications manager Lisa Bottle says `we are also relaunching our apprenticeship scheme which aims to train engineers with the kind of broad-based skills we require’.

Peter Ogilvie, managing director of Hartington Conway, a manufacturer of industrial roof lights and plastic roofing accessories which forms one case study in Engineering our Future, advises that job applicants `may have a good degree, but we need to know how they actually go about solving a real problem’.

The skills shortage is such that good young engineers should be pretty certain to find a job. Harris says it is a myth that unemployment in engineering is high. Though general unemployment stands at about 8%, for engineers it is running at 2.5% or less, Harris says.

Guildford-based Smith System Engineering is an example of a high-tech company seeking the graduate crAme de la crAme. Hugh Stewart, the head of personnel, says: `During the next year we expect to take on 30 people.’ Of these, about 12 would be graduates. Stewart says good engineers with a little experience can now pick and choose job offers.

A more sceptical view of the market is provided by Kevin Sheerin, human resources director at bearings group NSK-RHP Europe, who has problems finding engineers. He relies on his own apprentices, as few outsiders have the necessary training. `It’s hard to find people of the right quality. People want to get promoted out of engineering,’ Sheerin says, supporting Harris’ upbeat view of `the myth’ of poor prospects.

`People believe that engineers can’t break through the glass ceiling into the boardroom,’ Harris says. `But in practice, in manufacturing industry at least, an engineer is seven times more likely to become chief executive than any other kind of professional.’