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The cost of training
Four letters in the November 2013 issue of E&T discuss the problems of graduates getting jobs in engineering. Andrew Mackenzie notes the large number of graduates wanted and the experience of friends who could not get the jobs. For Dr Courous Mahtadi the problem is the lack of specific skills and so the recruitment from overseas. Both Ray Oliver and Colin McEwan discuss a perceived problem of lack of business sense. None of these problems are new.
Over the years I have observed job adverts increasingly demanding extensive experience in very specific skills. Indeed, my attention was drawn some years ago to an advert for three years’ experience in a skill only invented two years before.
It was not like that when I started. A friend took an engineering degree and spent his summers in paid work experience at Parsons being involved in testing a prototype diesel engine. I became an apprentice and spent years at night school with some day release to become both MIMechE and MIEE. Included in my studies was a course on administration and finance. Ferranti in Edinburgh, when I worked there, recruited new graduates every year and gave them six months training and experience in an old school. Since then many British companies have abdicated the responsibility for developing their workforce.
It seems to me that overseas engineers are preferred because someone else has borne the cost of giving them the experience. Perhaps an added attraction is that they can be paid less as the salaries in some adverts seem to be quite low. To the best of my judgment, posts with quite high responsibilities are being offered at salaries not much higher than equivalent posts when I retired 21 years ago. Taking account of inflation this is a drastic cut.
As Ray Oliver notes, engineers are capable of cost-benefit analysis and financiers not capable of understanding engineering. He was fortunate in having a proposal with a quick return on investment. In the Civil Service I had a proposal for substantial savings but on a longer time scale. It took two years to convince the Treasury to fund it as they only considered the annual budget for the department. Perhaps if the financiers could be taught to assess net present value instead of annual costs engineers would be able to contribute to improving their companies.
I sympathise with graduates who are full of hope of employment after spending years sitting in front of computers, and then get no jobs. Letters in E&T claim that it is scandalous and the media says that the industry in Britain is short of almost a million engineers. So what is happening? I think it is very simple, it is a matter of action by the government and more commitment by students.
Engineering is a practical discipline with a lot of changes and ever-surfacing new technology. While the latter is taught, the practical discipline is totally neglected by the current educational system. In the ‘good old days’ of British industry, there were thin and thick sandwich courses and one had to do a lot of manual jobs for two years, getting paid a pittance. But one finished with experience.
Today, the average graduate has little idea of the practical aspects of engineering. With relatively high starting salaries and few really large companies, few employers can afford them. As a result, graduates tend to take MBAs and disappear into the maze of banks and accounting outfits to write reports that nobody reads. The solution is simple: start apprenticeships again and pay survival wages, which would encourage employers to hire them for a couple of years. It is here where government could be helpful and the IET should be more strict accepting graduates without practical training.
Another issue is the knowledge of tools, materials and safety. Without this knowledge, one cannot design, manufacture or market and dot-comming teaches little about them.
One solution would be the introduction of technical secondary schools, which would teach all the subjects of the ordinary secondary schools with the addition of technical subjects. One day a week would be spent in various school workshops, learning basic hand and machining skills.
The English system of technical schools back in the 1950s was poorly organised and did not attract top students. It was a failure and was scrapped. The Hungarian system took only top students with 20:1 acceptance. The average school week was 6 x 8.5 hours. The workshops were well equipped with experienced instructors. Summer holiday was three weeks with six weeks of industrial attachment. Yet we were proud of our schools with a great deal of competition among them. Sports were before or after school, in well equipped clubs and there were many top-class sportsmen among older students. After more than 50 years in the manufacturing engineering business, I am still as proud of my school as I was when arrived in England as a refugee after the 1956 Hungarian revolution. While learning the language, I got a job as a toolmaker and as I could not communicate, I was given drawings and told to get on with them. I had to make all parts of sometimes complex tools. I had few difficulties.
Overhauling engineering education in England is long overdue if British industry once again wants to excel. But it may be difficult to explain the needs to politicians and persuade would-be students that without hands-on practical experience, a graduate will never be an engineer.
George Corvin CEng MIET
Don’t look at transport in isolation
In a recent IET lecture delivered at the Royal Institution in London, Atkins chief excutive Prof Uwe Krueger spoke about the continuing population growth of cities and how London needs to become a ‘smart city’. In another IET lecture, also in London, John Castle, engineer in charge of the Metropolitan stage of the HS2 project, described how HS2 will be able to deliver 20,000 passengers an hour into Euston station and suggested that what happens to them next is a very good question, provoking a further question about infrastructure and joined up thinking. News of a spate of deaths of London’s cyclists in collisions with HGVs emphasises the urgency of these issues.
There is no shortage of proposals and lobbying for large UK infrastructure projects, including HS2, so perhaps there is a need for a community of engineers and other professionals to get together to inform themselves, and the public, about the various challenges posed by continuing growth and development of London and the UK’s other cities – most urgently in relation to transport infrastructure. It seems important to look across the totality of these challenges, rather than treating them separately, and seek potentially integrated solutions that might involve a coherent mix of distributed incremental improvements and projects, like HS2, which aim to make a step change.
Peter Osmon FIET
Does the report in the December 2013 issue of E&T that Japan is preparing to build a 500km/h maglev railway mean that HS2 is out of date even before the first sod has been turned? I note that the project will be financed by the Central Japan Railway Company, unlike HS2, which is to be financed by taxpayers. Politicians, take note!
David Yeates CEng MIET
Tesla takes flight
The article in the October 2013 issue of E&T marking the 70th anniversary of the death of Nikola Tesla was very informative and reminded me that he explored many other avenues of engineering. While researching the history of vertical take-off and landing aircraft some time ago, I came across reference to a patent that Tesla filed on 9 September 1921 for a “method of aerial transportation”. He also investigated flight by means of electrical power.
Although the concept of the helicopter had been around since the time of Leonardo Da Vinci, it didn’t become a practical proposition until Etienne Ochmichen’s quadrotor vehicle flew on 14 April 1924. This vehicle eventually set several world records. Following a similar train of thought, Juan de la Cierva first flew his Autogyro on 9 January 1923.
Tesla’s patent, No. 1,655,113, granted on 3 January 1928, was for an aircraft that could take off either vertically or horizontally, fly in the horizontal plane and land either horizontally or vertically. This device would of course experience problems in the transition phase from vertical take-off to horizontal flight, and therefore would require an exceptionally skilled pilot at the controls.
Serious evaluation of Tesla’s concept didn’t occur until the 1960s with the ‘tail sitters’, similar to Tesla’s proposal, such as the Lockheed XFV-1, Hiller VXT-8 and the Ryan X-3. These progressed onto the intermediate types such as the Shorts SC-1, the Fairey Rotodyne and the Convertiplanes with tilt wings or rotors. The final proof of Tesla’s concept evolved into the vectored thrust Hawker Harrier and Bell/Boeing V-22 Osprey, though these are properly designated as V/STOL aircraft.
Although it appears that his aircraft never flew, Tesla was definitely ahead of his time with this concept, as he was with many of his other technological ideas.
D Little MIET
A close shave
My budget shavers having given up after good service, despite being a newspaper two for one offer. I bought two new simple ones from well known manufacturers, but after 15 months of alternate use the charging light on one failed to come on. Unsure of the guarantee, I contacted the manufacturer, who said I could buy a new charger but that they had none in stock. I subsequently found that it the guarantee was for 1. I approached the seller suggesting this wasn’t acceptable under Sale of Goods, and they readily refunded me without question.
The manufacturer responded saying “please accept my assurances that this failure is not indicative of poor quality. Whilst [our] products are manufactured to the highest specifications, there is always some potential, as with any electrical appliance, for some component failure to occur over a period of time and use.”
It is patently untrue that the highest specifications are used, as it would price it out of the market. What can be done to stop these sort of extravagant claims, which I have found widespread?
I enjoyed the Classic Project account of the invention of the Biro ballpoint pen (October 2013) because my father Herbert Frederick (Joe) Hammond had a critical input to its success. A scientific instrument maker of the old school, he made everything, including the tools to make them with, from the base castings to the lenses, from the hinges and locks to the screws that secured them to the essential (in those days) wooden cases, which he also made and, on occasions, lined with fabric. He even made his own French polish with which to finish the cases. He really knew materials and how and what you could do with them.
He worked for ER Watts, a company with a very high reputation for its products, in London for some 35 years from the mid-1930s. They were approached by Mr Biro for advice on consistently making the tip of his device and clenching it over the ball. The task was given to my father and he met Mr Biro whilst designing the necessary processes.
EurIng Brian Hammond CEng MIET