The pick of the crop from the E&T mailbag and inbox
Look back and learn from the old ways
I respect Dr Coorous Mohtadi's suggestion that academia and industry both have an important part to play in tackling the UK's shortage of technical skills (Comment, January 2015), but I think we must look back 50 years, when it was difficult to find anything that was not made in Britain, to find the solution.
Every company had a large training scheme to provide the skills necessary for its needs. Some even had their own colleges. With the fast moving changes in methods and materials, the difficulty of lecturers keeping up-to-date, and the fact that the older you are the more difficult it is to learn, it was thought that if you joined a company from university you were too old to learn the job. So they took people straight from school at 15 and rarely took anybody from university.
A manager of a large works at one of the biggest UK engineering companies told me that he was having to take on graduates, which he did not like as they would never catch up with those who came through the apprentice scheme. Companies then realised that the training schemes were eating into profits and that they could bring in 'trained' people from overseas, so they cut the training schemes.
To solve the problem, it should be impossible to go to university in the UK unless the fees are being paid by an employer, the student is coming from outside the UK or the fees are for leisure courses. All working visas should be valid only for the period that it would take for the employer to train a British citizen. Employers who train their new staff could receive a rebate from their huge National Insurance contributions to alleviate the training costs. All organisations should pay for the education of their own staff. If companies are paying the fees, they will ensure that the courses and the lecturers' knowledge are suitable for their businesses.
Nothing to fear?
At one time I would have agreed with the suggestion about privacy (Editor's Letter, February 2015) that if you've nothing to hide, you've nothing to fear. That was until the DVLA chose to sell my details to a parking company.
I don't remember giving permission but it turns out they can sell your data to whomsoever they like. Now a company I know nothing about knows where I live, they know when I'm on one of their car parks. They therefore know when I'm not in, they know when I leave the car park and knowing where I live, they know how long it will take me to get home. Now I do have something to fear, my data that I thought was private is out of my control.
Similarly, the government expects us to allow energy-switching companies to collect our smart-metering data for energy advice and switching purposes. These companies usually provide other services so you can expect your insurance company to know when you're not at home and hence adjust premiums accordingly. You may get calls from alarm companies offering their services, having deduced when you're not at home. I put one switching site to the test by using a different name and ticked the options not to sell my data on. It took just a few weeks for the sales calls to start.
Are we to assume that everyone who now seems to gain access to your data can be trusted and will handle it with care?
John Cowburn CEng FIEE
Contactless cards 'are forced on us'
I read with interest of the advances with using biometric measures for additional security alongside passwords ('Let your body be your key', February 2015). With Mastercard and Visa reported as part of the groups interested in this I cannot help but wonder why banks are also forcing contactless payment cards on their customers.
Three different banks have now sent me cards with the technology without seeking my consent. It seems to me that contactless payment has close to zero security - there is no PIN, password or even agreement to the transaction necessary, as I understand it. What are the true levels of risk for various everyday ways of authenticating identity?
Dorothy Pipet MIET
Status debate rumbles on
Referring again to the long standing but extremely important question of public recognition of the status of chartered engineers, I noted with interest Mr PJ Green's letter (E&T January 2015).
In the past when asked what I did for a living I have frequently described myself as a professional engineer. If PE has legal protection in the USA, as mentioned by Mr Green, and legal protection can be obtained for it in the UK, then I would support it. To line up with the USA wouldn't be a bad thing. I would also support any alternative initials or term which has legal protection in the UK for use when describing chartered engineers.
This might prevent the media from loosely referring to chartered engineers and technicians all lumped together under the heading of 'engineers'.
RF Maylin CEng FIET
I read with interest the numerous letters on the status of engineers, and how they seem to think that because 'engineer' is protected by law in North America, the land is some sort of utopia in this area. I therefore read with hilarity a piece of junk mail recently sent to me by a financial company offering to lend me money. It was signed by their 'chief happiness engineer'.
Martin J Leese CEng MIET
Since many of your readers think the only way for engineers to be recognised publicly is for them to have a suitable prenom, could I suggest for consideration that our existing postnom should be used for this purpose. Then when being introduced an engineer would be chartered engineer John Smith.
Giles AK Vincent CEng MIET
Recently my son, an IET member, applied for a mortgage from Britain's newest high street bank, The Metro Bank. As part of the application he was requested to have his passport re-certified as a 'true likeness'.
The following list was supplied as acceptable professionals for this purpose: accountant, bank/building society official, barrister, dentist, doctor, justice of the peace, Member of Parliament, optician, person with honours (MBE, OBE etc), police officer, Post Office official, social worker, solicitor, teacher.
It is clear that Engineering Council is not regarded as an 'acceptable professional body' in the eyes of at least the Metro Bank and I suspect other similar institutions. Maybe the status of the engineering profession will change when the lights go out.
EurIng Peter Russell CEng MIET
Technical innovation alone isn't enough
I confess to a slight annoyance when reading IET literature which assumes that all members are of one mind regarding the relationship between the Institution and the outside world. For example, let's take our vision and mission statements, with phases such as "working to engineer a better world" and "supporting technology innovation to meet the needs of society". Grand sounding statements to be sure, but what do we mean by 'better' and 'the needs of society'? Better than what? What needs are we talking about?
Is it to be assumed that all we have to do is raise the profile of' the Institution and act professionally for a better world to follow naturally? Looking at such things though engineering eyes is simply not good enough; we should seek to discover what these phrases mean to 'the man on the Clapham omnibus' and how he believes the engineering profession helps towards their realisation.
I guess his answer would be twofold: he needs food, water, shelter, transport, leisure, security - and, for a better world, peace, justice, freedom, democracy, sustainability and a more equitable distribution of the world's resources. Sure, engineers and technologists satisfy material needs, but on the wider betterment issues, very little; we tend to leave these to the politicians, lawyers and economists to realise.
Engineers cannot assume that because something is faster, more efficient and will readily sell that needs are met and the world will become a better place. In other words we need to give as much attention to social and economic issues as we do to materials and machines. Moreover I can think of no better way to raise the profile of the profession.
John Gamlin CEng MIET
East Bergholt, Colchester
Silly Putty had serious uses
Justin Pollard's 'Eccentric Engineer' column on Silly Putty (January 2015) reminded me of my somewhat turbulent time at Colebrand Ltd (now Colebrand International Ltd), where a successful use was found for this material in lock-up devices. These were substantial cylinders normally retrofitted to bridges and similar load-bearing structures, equipped with a bleed orifice and filled with Silly Putty.
Under slow strain, the cylinders would 'creep' and permit slow displacements due to the pseudoplastic character of the putty; while under shock loading the putty was highly rheopectic and would act as a solid, locking up all the cylinders in the affected area, thereby spreading the load across multiple load points. It was, in effect, a hydraulic damping system that permitted system compressibility over an appropriate range of loads and time periods (also being rather chemically inert, highly resistant to mould and self-lubricating, not to mention dirt cheap to install).
Dr Jim Groves IEng MIET
Multiple system confusion
I started at primary school in 1942 and was taught using exclusively the imperial system of units. In 1949 I moved to a grammar school and, while the imperial system was still used, learned the CGS system, which we knew as 'the metric system'.
I next joined what was then the guided weapons division of English Electric and started a thin sandwich course as an apprentice. The academic part was challenging and confusing as thermodynamics was taught using the imperial system, physics using CGS and electrical engineering using MKS units.
By the time I completed my apprenticeship I was familiar with three different systems and, as my understanding developed, realised the great advantages of the MKS system.
The situation at work was equally chaotic, as the aerodynamicists clung to the imperial system. In 1967 there was a breakthrough when every engineer was given a very well written booklet, 'Changing to the Metric System', which cost 4 shillings and sixpence in-pre decimal currency. From that point no report submitted for publication was issued unless it was written exclusively using SI units. No more air densities in 'slugs per cubic foot'.
I don't regret my experiences but I thought younger members might reflect on what a blessing it is to have a single, rational system of units.
Colin Brown CEng FIET
Why handwriting is still relevant
Self-made millionaire Scott Fletcher (Interview, E&T January 2015) complains that young entrepreneurs still in school are being tested on their handwriting. "Who uses a pen any more?" he asks, suggesting that they should be tested on their keyboard skills or ability on electronic devices that are "actually of some use to them".
Yes, many great inventors and discoverers were not great at conventional school work, but they were the exception not the rule. Producing a generation of screen-ogling, key-tapping zombies and customer fodder for the latest toy may make lots of money for some companies, but leaves society in a very sad state.
As a young engineering apprentice in 1950 I too had imagination and was often in trouble for diverting from the day-to-day tasks of learning my craft, but to be unable to read, write and speak English would have been disaster.
When I was a toddler I received an electric shock when I pushed a carpet tack into the unprotected live terminal of an old-fashioned round-pin mains socket that was mounted just above the skirting-board in my parents' house. I was knocked across the room, and I remember holding my finger up and saying through the tears, "It hurts".
Some 60 years later, I stayed in an upmarket country-club hotel that had been comprehensively refurbished and refitted with all the latest gadgets: low-energy lighting, dimmers etc.
Imagine my surprise when I spotted unshuttered, round-pin sockets in the wall at a height where any toddler could reach them easily. Some, but not all, had table lamps plugged into them. Presumably the owners were trying to prevent theft by fitting non-standard plugs. Other sockets were left open, inviting little fingers to put things in.
More recently I stayed in a hotel where the cover had been left off the central light fitting in the bathroom, exposing live wires and connections. The ceiling was low, and the fitting was within a couple of feet of the shower. I showered using the small light over the mirror.
It seems the hotel industry has a long way to go in protecting its guests from unpleasant or in the worst-case fatal electric shocks.
Dale Fittes CEng MIET