Feedback: your letters

Under discussion this issue: obstacles to apprenticeships; solutions for the deaf; in defence of focus groups; sport for all and more.

Obstacles to apprenticeships

Critics say that the UK has a training system that is failing to teach enough of its young people essential vocational skills. It has to be said that there is no shortage of British youngsters wanting to become our future electricians or plumbers - but there are limited apprenticeships and training places.

Of course, we cannot blame this lack of training all upon the employers, and I have no doubt that this government in particular is providing money and incentives for training. But is it enough, and is the funding being used wisely?

Some would say it is wasted on cold-hearted bureaucracy. Vocational employers whose businesses provide skilled services have a moral duty to recruit and train staff properly - but are they getting the right government incentives, or do they see training apprentices as a hindrance and a bad investment? It is a known fact that it takes some time for a trainee to become productive and cost effective. Until that time, a trainee can only be considered an investment for the future. Trainees are not to be used as cheap labour.

An electrical company, with the assistance of its local technical college, can spend a considerable amount of time and money developing the requisite skills in trainees, only to find that the employee leaves before the company can recover its investment. The industry as a whole may benefit, as the employee generally stays within the industry, but the training employer loses out. And perhaps it is cheaper for one company to poach trained labour from another company - rather than provide training themselves.

This may well be another disincentive for small- to medium-sized employers wishing to train youngsters. Government must find a way of funding training more fairly so that these employers cannot lose out.

And there is something else wrong. Too many youngsters who have a natural hands-on ability never qualify. It is because too much emphasis on highly complex technical issues has become the norm. We should teach our youngsters how to do the job by showing them the basic practical applications first and foremost. The technical issues, which a senior qualified electrician undoubtedly needs, can be progressed alongside the practical course work but at a much slower pace.

The training of youngsters should be our biggest single challenge. This government should take the initiative. We should remind ourselves that it is the practical skill itself that we are lacking in the UK. We don't want boffins with a toolbox full of spanners they cannot use without regular damage to their own knuckles.

We must secure our future in our youngsters that have natural practical abilities. Our combined effort should be to the future competency of our skilled industry so that they, in turn, can pass on their skills - when that time arrives.

Peter Mitchell MIET, Weston Super Mare, North Somerset

Warning for hard of hearing

Reading about the difficulties the hard of hearing experience when working in dark or poorly lit conditions ('Infrared lab hazard', Letters, Vol3 #16) reminded me of a product that I was involved in developing in the 1980s, the TAM (tactile acoustic monitor).

The initial research was done by Exeter University and the RNID, after which it was then licensed through the British Technology Group for production engineering and sale.

With some additional off-the-shelf parts - like a doorbell-type wireless link and a loop amplifier - this unit offers a practical means of implementing an economical telemetry system that would allow simple communication between colleagues in the lab environment.

The TAM works by converting sound into a fixed frequency vibration that is transmitted onto the wrist via small light weight piezo-electric vibrator. The fast switch on and off response times (around five to ten times per second) are such that temporal pattern of rapidly changing sounds like speech can be easily followed, and this makes it suitable to be used as a telemetry system for coded signals.

So signals for raising the alarm or simple other instructions can be transmitted by hearing colleagues over the wireless link to an induction loop amplifier. The TAM also has a comprehensive self-teach training programme for using the coded method of communication, such as when it's used over the telephone.

The unit is still being made by the original company, Summit Deaf Aids in London ( [new window]) - who are well known for their willingness to help customers adapt their products to meet the many varied uses to which these units are sometimes put.

I was a partner some time ago but now have no financial interest in the business, which continues to be run by one of the founding engineers and his family, who make it on their Docklands premises.

Will Windham MIET, London

Whom should we trust?

We are often required to prove our identity in order to access our investments, or obtain a passport, or a myriad of other things. This usually involves obtaining the signature of a lawyer, accountant, bank employee or financial adviser.

Why should such people be trusted above all others? It is the unscrupulous and immoral actions of members of these professions that have plunged the world into its present condition of financial disaster.

I suggest it is high time these professions be struck off the lists and replaced with better educated and more trustworthy people such as scientists, doctors and engineers.

Stuart Bridgman MIET, Wellington, New Zealand

What you see...

In his 'If You Ask Me' column in the 20 September 2008 issue of E&T, Nick Smith has accomplished the feat of being right and wrong at the same time.

Focus groups are invaluable - but you simply don't ask them what they want. Ever. Much too open-ended.

What you do first is some design engineering, to produce several concepts - if possible (and appropriate) in the form of "works like, looks like" models. With modern solid modelling CAD, rapid prototyping fabrication, and software emulation, this can now be done in a fraction of the time formerly taken.

Next choose a focus group that is representative of your users and of purchasing decision makers. Remember, these people may be different, and there's no point in satisfying the user if the purchaser never buys your offering.

Now present your group with the designs. Let them handle and interact with them, with minimal or no instruction. Expect they will break something - you can learn from this.

As this is happening, look at how the focus group interacts with these models and note what comments and criticisms they have. If more user instruction is needed, consider whether this could be eliminated with a better design - don't just assume the user is stupid for not understanding your intent.

Building on this feedback you will gain valuable insights into how to improve your product - or perhaps demonstrate that it's an idea with no future.

Even though making such models can be expensive, not making them can be disastrous.

Caron Williams MIET, Edge Product Development Corp, Newtown, PA, USA

Sport is for all

Kris Sangani's comments on developments in sports science ('If You Ask Me', Vol 3 #15) are just another indication of how far our perception of sport has moved from its true ideals.

My dictionary gives exercise and pleasure as the motivators for sport, with the competitive element only as a common option. These two intrinsic motivators can bring huge benefits in terms of personal well being and the health of society in general.

Unfortunately, in our capitalist, media-driven world the competitive element has now become the dominant, if not the essential feature of what is regarded as sport. The total emphasis on winning and winners excludes all but the highly gifted, physically endowed or otherwise specially privileged minority.

In such a climate, where the true ideals of sport are lost to extrinsic goals involving medals, glory and great financial rewards, there are few barriers to the aids that science might able to provide.

But let us not delude ourselves into thinking that all this has much to do with genuine sport.

I have been a sporting cyclist for most of my 70 years but have never taken part in any competitive cycling event. The real benefits, which I still enjoy today, have nothing to do with competition at all.

The great danger with so called 'sports' science is that it will continue to distort our perception of sport into what would be better titled competitive show business.

The vast majority of the population will go on missing the benefits of participating in real sport. They will remain passive observers as they sit and watch their celebrity 'heroes' performing ever more astounding feats assisted by all the latest developments that technology and pharmacology can offer.

Entertaining and lucrative it may be, but true sport it is not. And we are all the losers.

Roy W Sach CEng MIET, Maldon, Essex

French exchange

The state-owned British electricity system was privatised by the Thatcher government and sold initially to, largely, British shareholders.

How spectacularly ironic that our nuclear generating industry, British Energy, is now going back into state ownership, having been acquired by the French government via EdF, to add to its portfolio of Thames Power, SEEB etc.

Napoleon would be proud!

Dr R Barnes. FIET, Kings Lynn, Norfolk

Why, robot?

Michael Twitchett (Letters, Vol 3 #17) remembers traffic signals being described as 'robots' in Yorkshire in the 1960s and wonders when the term was
first used.

When I moved within the (then) Ministry of Transport in 1968 to take up a post in Nottingham, where my responsibilities included the oversight of traffic signals, an older generation of people here often referred to them as 'robbos'.

Hugh Proctor MIET, Beeston, Nottingham


'The Stuff of Life' (Vol 3 #16) refers to our Leakfrog product. Although we have other devices that measure, transmit and analyse data to be viewed via the Internet, Leakfrog does not have this functionality and measures customer-side leakage in water systems.

Vicky Black, Qonnectis Networks Ltd, Sunbury on Thames

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