Keeping Pace in the microtechnology race

Pace Micro Technology’s technical director Rob Fleming tells DOUGLAS FRIEDLI that the best way to increase interest in engineering amongst the younger generation is to stress the huge impact it has on the everyday life of people

Pace Micro Technology, the cable TV and satellite set-top box developer, is expanding rapidly beyond its base in west Yorkshire. Rising demand for home networking and internet services delivered via television has prompted the company to establish a new technical centre in Cambridge and an engineering centre at Bracknell, Berkshire. In the US, a recent order for 200,000 set-top boxes from cable TV group BellSouth Entertainment has boosted activity at the company’s new US base in Florida.

Pace technical director Rob Fleming has been with the company since it was founded in 1982. He says that despite the success being enjoyed by the company, one of the problems it faces is finding sufficient numbers of electronic and software engineers to fuel its expansion.

Why did you choose to open your new centres in southern England?

We needed a centre in Bracknell because there is a huge amount of talent there, and not everyone wants to work in Yorkshire. But we have no intention of leaving the north. You don’t move 900 people just like that. People who have moved to the north love it.

Pace has often talked about the shortage of qualified engineers in the UK. What do you see as the principal reason for the drought?

It depends on what stimulates people. Nothing happens without engineers, but that is a message can get easily lost.

Governments have tried to reduce unemployment by improving IT or office skills, but wealth creation is really about making things.

How important is the US market? There is a huge market in the US, and we can’t really be a major player without a US presence to support our customers there. But we don’t just recruit from the US. There are opportunities for UK engineers to go there too.

What can be done to enthuse young people about engineering?

By pushing the fact that they can have a big impact on people’s lives, for example by enabling people who don’t have computers to access e-mail and the internet through their television sets. New ideas like text messaging via mobile phones are gaining popularity among younger people, perhaps because they are becoming more isolated.

The most interesting thing, from the engineering point of view, is the potential of it all – the broadcast network is huge and you can upgrade software directly down the system.

In what ways do you think the government could help to make engineering more attractive?

You can’t put everything onto the government. People decide what they like when they are aged 10 or 11, so there is no point trying to convince them to be engineers once they have finished their A-levels. I would like to see publications like The Engineer in every school library in the UK, and to see schools encouraging kids by writing about engineering in a way they can enjoy.