vol 8, issue 11

Your Letters

11 November 2013
By Reader's Letters
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Are we at the beginning of a new revolution that could profoundly affect the way we live?

Send your letters to The Editor, E&T, Michael Faraday House, Six Hills Way, Stevenage, Herts SG1 2AY, UK, or to engtechletters@theiet.org. We reserve the right to edit letters and to use submissions in any other format.

Jobs for Britain’s graduates

I agree with Andrew Mackenzie (Letters, November 2013) that the lack of jobs for new graduate engineers in the UK is indeed a scandal, which hopefully might lessen as the economy moves away from recession. However, it seems to me that this situation could be overcome to a large extent by directly connecting university courses to industry.

This was pioneered in the 1960s by the ‘new universities’ formed from the then small number of colleges of advanced technology, and provided sandwich courses in which students spent six months of each year at university and six months in industry.

I suspect sandwich courses were early casualties during economic ‘savings’ within companies, seen as easy meat by the accountants allowed to drive them. Fortunately, we now have a core of major companies who have seen the light and have set up their own training academies to try and redress the balance.

What is needed is more enlightened companies who recognise that training is investment for the future setting up their own training academies. Then hopefully the difficulty engineering companies have with the present severe shortage of home-produced suitably qualified and trained engineers, which forces them into the hideous scenario of having to recruit engineers from abroad, will start to ease.

The present situation has come about by the present disconnect between what academia is producing and what is actually required, and simply throwing out graduates which industry cannot use directly. I have personal experience of a company that had to recruit from abroad to meet an urgent need to introduce new modern equipment, and believe me it is soul destroying.

Mike Stanier CEng MIET
Derby

 

With regard to Andrew Mackenzie’s letter (November 2013) about his students’ failure to secure jobs once qualified, I have to ask if the students ever undertook any work experience in industry. There are many companies that have graduate programmes where students get to gain the work experience that a fully academic course is unable to give. Most of these are well worth inclusion on their CVs.

I have worked with a few graduates under one scheme and can state that the three months they spend in the scheme takes them from knowing just the theory to having a real practical appreciation of where theory and reality can depart company.

I would ask for more modern apprenticeship places for those who wish to go into engineering, where they get the experience as well as being able to take courses up to degree level.

Paul E Bennett IEng MIET
By email

 

When I studied production engineering at Bath in the late 1960s, ours was a thin sandwich course and we were sponsored by companies who had enough forethought to recognise it was to their advantage to invest in us to bring through engineers who had both education and experience. The course included management, finance and marketing.

Later, the course changed to a straight three-year academic course because short-sighted companies stopped sponsoring students. Having worked as an engineer and manager and in sales, and taken a management degree, when I taught at the Coventry Lanchester Polytechnic in the early 1980s, I managed to get business and marketing introduced into the production engineering course there. Students were enthusiastic and I believe became better engineers and subsequently managers because of this.

Companies are reaping the fruit of their lack of investment in engineering apprentices and students on thin sandwich courses. Graduates must have experience during their studies to be effective and employable, which means that students and universities must opt into the thin sandwich concept again and companies must sponsor students as an investment. Too many fail to take a long-term view.

Peter Williams CEng MIET
Beverley, East Yorkshire

 

Many engineering vacancies exist in the UK, so why are graduates not getting work experience?

Thinking back to my early experience and asking my senior colleagues, it is apparent that the vast majority of us started our careers working for previously government-owned organisations such as British Rail, National Grid, BT, London Electricity Services, British Gas, the Water Board and municipal maintenance transport departments. Before they were privatised, profit was not their prime objective so top management allowed an annual intake of graduates to come into their organisations, realising that these inexperienced people would not initially contribute to the delivery of their services.

Managers knew that a long-term view was needed to ensure a constant supply of experienced engineers, not only for their businesses but also for UK plc. Once privatised, however, it appeared that most organisations focused on short-term profit and return on investment for their new shareholders.

Inexperienced graduates seemed to be viewed by business accountants only as an expense. Experienced engineers recruited from abroad don’t always have a long-term commitment to the company nor UK plc. There have been a few benefits of privatising some of the public entities but the training of graduates has not been one of them. It is too late to unscramble the egg and renationalise these organisations, but incentives are now needed from government to encourage organisations to provide early career experience and proper mentoring. There are challenges for government in this regard because many privatised companies are no longer British owned and don’t care much for UK plc.

Ian Ross MIET
By email

 

Mr Mackenzie’s energy engineering students are struggling to get positions, but this is not unique to the newly qualified. As a 65-year-old career-long chartered engineer offering my independent services in the energy management sector, I too am aware how little opportunities there are. My prospective clients are largely SMEs as the large companies already have in-house energy programmes and resources. However, many medium-sized industrial and commercial organisations have little interest in managing their energy. I’m often obliged to offer fees below minimum wage level to secure even a base turnover of work.

Bill Spragg CEng MIET
By email

 

The existing Knowledge Transfer Partnership programme supported by the Technology Strategy Board (www.ktponline.org.uk/graduate-opportunities) provides graduates with a paid two-year industrial placement as a KTP associate. Having had personal experience in assisting four associates on this scheme, I can recommend it as an excellent way forward.

Associates completing the programme will often be offered employment with the industrial partner. Even if this does not happen they are eminently more employable.

Dr John L Victory CEng MIET
School of Engineering, Design & Technology, University of Bradford

 

Support for budding entrepreneurs

What is the IET doing to support budding entrepreneurs across the engineering sector? The number of new businesses launched each year in the UK is growing fast, with 400,000 having already been registered this year. We are not told the proportion of these whose interests fall within the IET’s scope, but probably there has never been a time when new ideas were bubbling more richly up from the fertile minds of young engineers, inevitably calling out for capital, encouragement and business skills.

Some business schools offer courses in innovation and entrepreneurial attitudes, but one may query their quality; in any event I doubt these young people have time to go back to school. They need help in their specific context that is not addressed by professional registration.

In the mid-1990s I was one of a group of IEE members who established the Consultants Network, specifically to offer the institution’s services to the ever-growing number of self-employed engineers, at a time when we felt that our institution had failed to spot this need.

It worked well for a number of years but then seems to have somewhat faded away. Now the need is different. We need an entrepreneur network, poised to offer specialist advice and mentoring to very young businesses in our sector.

The IET’s Mentoring Scheme may be up to the job or it may not - I suspect that its main role is in offering careers advice and that we need something new. At least let us not pass up this opportunity to serve the budding entrepreneurs who will be paying our state pensions in the future.

Anthony F Bainbridge CEng FIET
Codford, Wiltshire

 

Don’t talk to me about engineering

At the VIP opening of the recent Manchester Science Festival at the city’s Museum of Science and Industry, I was greeted at the door by volunteers handing out badges and had the choice of ‘I’m an artist - talk to me’ or ‘I’m a scientist - talk to me’. I said I was neither, but an engineer. “We don’t have any of those,” I was told, “but a scientist is the same thing, isn’t it?” Oh dear! And in a venue dedicated to engineering!

John Cowburn CEng FIET
Chairman of IET North West Network Group

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Knock-on effects of self-driving cars

Has anyone seriously thought through the idea of driverless cars discussed in your November 2013 ‘For & Against’ debate? Keith Goffin suggests a booked vehicle would appear, drive us to our destination, then return to its nearest depot. With such vehicles being potentially much cheaper to hire than a taxi, because of the removal of the main cost element of the driver’s pay, few would choose, as Goffin further suggests, to own a car with its attendant overhead costs which sits idle for much of the day at home or outside the workplace and certainly most of the night.

It is what could follow from this that I find intriguing. The government would almost certainly view having driverless cars, and their maintenance (or perhaps lack of it), in the ownership of the general public as a potential safety hazard. Therefore, such fleets of self-drive vehicles would likely be under company ownership, and their design become standardised at a level needed for the job, the London black cab being an example.

Each vehicle being in more or less continuous operation, there would be a huge reduction in the number and style of vehicles actually needed, resulting in far fewer vehicle manufacturers being required and the decimation of its attendant supply and service chain. There may also be significant knock-on effects on bus services and, perhaps, even trains.

With no need for parking in town centres, much space will be freed up for other uses. And with few, if any, private cars, there will be no need to have any on- or off-street parking at one’s residence, so giving a much wider choice of where to live.

Are we at the beginning of a new revolution that could profoundly affect the way we live?

Colin Davis CEng, MIET
Gosfield, Essex

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