Engineering in 2014: A Tale of Two Centuries

I have this fine morning read three articles that allowed me to travel about 50 years in time in the space of an hour.

(1) The first is yet another Fleet Street article, alleging that UK industry has insufficient engineers for its specialist sectors. That’s news? It only provides further evidence that over two decades, government and industry in the UK (and I surmise, much of the western world) have failed (or refused) to solve a solvable problem.

The article suggests that if you’re a well qualified engineer, you’re sitting pretty. The world is your oyster, you can name your price and laugh at the days ahead.

What’s weird is that a quick perusal of readers’ comments on the article will tell you that engineers today feel like doing anything but laughing.

(2) The second article is Prof John Perkins’ recently-released report entitled Review of Engineering Skills (you can download it here), referred to in the first article.

The report was commissioned by the government. It is a top-down view of a problem affecting many businesses. These businesses depend on a commodity that has become scarce.

The government has a debt problem, and wants to increase its tax take from as many people and corporations as possible.

The government can’t because those corporations aren’t growing.

Those corporations aren’t growing (so they say) because they can’t (or won’t) afford to pay for this scarce commodity. Everyone wants a report documenting the problem and providing solutions. Prof Perkins gave it to them.

It so happens that this commodity is a subset of the human race with a particular set of skills. We call them engineers.

(3) But now, square those first two articles with this one: Execs who can’t attract former coworkers are red flags.

it argues that if you are a really good worker or manager, then when you jump ship for another firm, all your previous co-workers will want to follow, just to be able to work with you. Word of mouth travels fast. If you are really, really cool to work with, then anyone recruiting you can successfully end up recruiting an entire team!

Emphasis on the word cool.

By extension, if you as an employer provide a really, really cool working experience, your engineers’ tendency to blab to their friends will bring you more engineers than any recruiting agency ever will. Engineer shortage problem? Solved.

Reading these three articles left me feeling like I was reading a hypothetical Dickens’ sequel A Tale of Two Centuries. People from two completely different worlds, co-existing, trying to solve similar problems in completely different ways.

I’ll reflect more on this in the days to come, but for now, consider:

This year marks the centenary of the start of the First World War, when the autocratic, authoritarian men in power tried desperately to solve 20th Century problems using 19th Century thinking. You know the outcome.

George Santayana: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

One thought on “Engineering in 2014: A Tale of Two Centuries”

  1. This is one of those things that crops up regularly in The Engineer. Especially the idea that there is a shortage is usually rebutted with the fact that pay rates are usually not very good in engineering disciplines. The argument goes that there is an excess of demand over supply, ergo rates should rise. That they don’t is presented as evidence that there is not a shortage of engineers. Moreover, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence of engineering graduates unable to find employment within any engineering field.

    The counter argument is that UK based companies can only compete against overseas manufacturers by depressing pay rates to maintain a competitive advantage.

    I find both arguments unconvincing and after reading the recommendations of the Perkins report I am not convinced that Perkins’ brief was sufficient.

    Aerospace and automotive engineering are thriving in the UK relative to other sectors. Why? I don’t know, but I would contend that here is an underlying problem to do with the management of poorly performing companies and the management of the economy more generally. Should we not look to improve the stock of our business managers before we consign our youth to an uncertain future in engineering?

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