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Where are African jobs?

I was quite amazed to read of the Royal Academy of Engineering report saying that there is a shortage of skilled and experienced engineers in Sub Saharan Africa (News, December 2012). I am a mechanical engineer trained at Imperial College London and Loughborough University to masters level. I worked for multinationals for about 15 years, yet I’ve been at home for the last five years struggling to get a small business going. I can only describe myself as underemployed or even unemployed.

There are a lot of infrastructure projects going on in Eastern Africa, but many Chinese, Korean and European companies come in with their own engineers, citing a lack of experience in niche areas, yet for we experienced engineers it takes just a little acclimatisation to get up to speed in related areas.

Many of my former engineering colleagues are also eking out a living. It’s come to the point where I have to cast my eyes out of the region to Botswana, UAE, Australia or Canada. Where are these jobs? I am ready to sign up for one now!

Nyaga Kebuchi MIET
By email

The Royal Academy of Engineering report concluding that a lack of engineers is holding back Africa’s development suggests engineers are widely undervalued – or perhaps their skills are misunderstood. For sure, there is little point in producing engineering graduates without the prospect of fulfilling careers.

This is not only an African problem. About 15 years ago, the then newly appointed head of the UK Civil Service toured our offices. As a new arrival myself, I was pleased to meet him. Our brief conversation began well enough, until I explained I was an engineer working on infrastructure for developing countries. His disdain was plain and he quickly moved away.

This led me to question whether engineers belong in the Civil Service or are undervalued by official development agencies.

Peter Davies CEng MIET
Stevenage, Hertfordshire

Status debate rumbles on

As a long-retired chartered engineer I fear the debate about status will rumble on forever. For the past 50 years we have indulged in episodes of analysis and complaint that have brought very little change in public understanding of the role of engineering in society.

Parliament is stuffed with lawyers, accountants and professional politicians while CEng MPs are as rare as hens’ teeth. This means the bulk of our MPs have a major professional advantage since, if they later lose their seat, they remain up-to-date with the changes in the law but an engineer could be years out of date. Actors, pop stars, doctors, dentists, teachers and solicitors all have a recognisable place in the lives of the public, we do not.

Our institutions have not made much progress, and it would be foolish to expect those in power to come uninvited to seek the light under our bushel. So what is the answer?

Perhaps a publicity campaign directed at the public, delivered in schools and designed to inform those in power might help. The self-congratulatory award ceremonies by the sporty, theatrical and arty folks do no harm in promoting their activities. I know we engineers are not given to tuxedos, ball gowns and red carpets, but surely there has been some serious neglect in the wider promotion of us and our profession.

EurIng Ray Oliver CEng MIET
By email

I have been a member of the IEE/IET for over 40 years now, having joined while at Salford University. At regular intervals, the magazine of the day has carried letters all bemoaning the lack of status afforded to engineers, and many asking for some kind of protected title.

The answer lies not in protected titles, but in publicity and education. No one would dream of calling a nurse a doctor. But think – there are several soaps and documentaries on TV regularly portraying such professions. When did you last see one portraying engineers and technicians? Engineering yes, but not the people.

Part of ‘our’ problem lies in the fact that the craftspeople and technicians are undervalued, which is a cultural British issue. We do need to be proactive in publicising who we are and what we do, and in correcting people when they get it wrong.

What made me put pen to paper was ‘Extreme Railways’, a TV programme in which Chris Tarrant, a presenter with little knowledge of engineering, was amazed by engineering marvels. During the final programme on the KonKan railway down India’s Western coast, he came across a note written by a junior engineer and pinned to the door of a site hut. I leave those words with you, with the thought that we should publicise them widely.

“I take the vision which comes from dreams and apply the magic of science and mathematics, adding the heritage of my profession to create a design. I am an engineer. I serve mankind by making dreams come true.”

Graham Worsnop IEng MIET
By email

Applying to a UK bank to open a savings account I stated that I had ‘professional’ occupation. It then offered a possible list : the closest I could get to engineer was ‘technician’! Engineers are apparently not professionals, but technicians are.

David James
By email

I have graphically recorded my three-monthly prostate specific antigen readings for the past four years. On a few occasions I have produced a graph to show a trend. Because the readings have been consistently low for the past year, on the last visit I saw a uro-oncology clinical nurse specialist. On producing my graph the nurse asked: “Are you an engineer?” I was encouraged.

John Corbett CEng MIET
By email

Smart grid needs new approach

‘Grid gets the smarts’ (January 2013) urges that “we need a change in the hierarchical thinking of the network”, but includes a diagram showing smart appliances that “can shut off in response to frequency fluctuations”. The idea that frequency can be used to gauge demand comes from a traditional grid that is dominated by large rotating machines which slow down as load is applied, but it seems increasingly out of place as electronic devices are connected to the grid.

One of the difficulties to be overcome is that the local grid may have too much impedance to ensure that local generation remains synchronised with the rest of the grid. Now that many household appliances contain very accurate clocks, is it not time to abandon the variable-frequency grid and make all generators synchronise to a time signal and gauge demand from voltage and current? This would not only make local generation a realistic possibility, but should ease the task of the intelligent network switchgear, because a rogue generator that had lost synchronisation would be easy to spot and isolate. It would also help the network degrade gracefully into islands that are still synchronised.

David Billin MIET
By email

The storage of electrical energy will clearly be a key requirement in an effective future grid system, and will be needed in appreciable quantities if the level of intermittent renewables is to be as high as proposed.

By far the major grid storage technology in use today is pumped storage; worldwide it totals some 90GW, 22GW of which is in the US. The UK’s largest installation is Dinorwig with a rating of 1,800MW. It has a maximum storage capacity of six hours at full load representing 10GWh. This was a useful amount of storage in the current grid system, but will not have much impact when we have the proposed 20GW of renewables. Other useful technologies in commercial operation are compressed air storage, having some 3GWh capacity, and solar molten salt with 1GWh.

It is inevitable that standby generation such as gas-fired will be essential to cover episodes such as winter anticyclones lasting for one or two weeks. So in addition to the new gas-fired generation required to replace the ageing oil, coal and nuclear stations will be a requirement for a further 10-20GW as standby.

As the cost of new nuclear generation rightly includes the cost of waste storage and decommissioning, it is only reasonable that the cost of renewables should reflect their decommissioning and essential back-up plant.

Dr Stan Jones FIET
Great Kingshill, Bucks

Porthcurno memories

The article about the Porthcurno telegraph station in your January 2013 issue (‘PK calling’) brought back some interesting memories. In the early 1950s telephones on the Isles of Scilly were served by a magneto switchboard and communication to the mainland was via the telegraph cable to Porthcurno. Voice communication was provided over the cable by a 1 plus 1 carrier system, specially designed by the Post Office research laboratories. This provided a valuable service until replaced by radio, but even then subscribers making a call would often request the cable.

The undersea cables were routed off the beach to the terminal via a small building at the narrow head of the beach. Local rumour had it that security was once threatened by a stake driven into the ground to tether a donkey! All part of history now.

Ray Bluett FIEE
By email

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