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Skills issues are nothing new

The recent IET report ‘Engineering and Technology Skills and Demand in Industry’ raises familiar questions that never seem to get answered. First we must question why, if there is such an increase in engineering and technology vacancies, this is not reflected in roles advertised in the public domain. A quick browse of E&T magazine’s jobs section or the IET website for example does not draw attention to the vast opportunities cited in the survey.

If intelligent young people don’t see compelling roles advertised on a regular basis, any effort to attract them to our profession is futile. With half of school leavers now entering higher education compared with five per cent 40 years ago, when the UK also had a much larger industrial base, why is there such a shortage of suitable new graduates?

The lack of soft skills and the relationship between industry and university mentioned in the report is nothing new. In the 1970s and 1980s, UK-based multinationals collaborated with universities to develop courses, staff and research projects. If not sponsored, once joining a company graduates were inducted onto graduate programmes which over the past 30 years have spawned many successful entrepreneurs and start-ups. I fear it is no coincidence that the lack of start-ups in recent years coincides more with the demise of such companies and programmes than the state of the  economy.

We continue to hear there is a skills shortage and hiring is restrained by lack of candidates. If this is the case, we should address why so many engineers leave our profession or seek better opportunities outside the UK in the first ten years of their career, and why so many others retire early. Before targeting schoolchildren, new graduates or senior people from other professions, surely we should first address why we are haemorrhaging existing engineers.

To develop a high-tech, high-value economy, government must create an environment that allows employers to develop people, products and industry while the IET nurtures our profession. Until someone takes responsibility for completing the circle, the UK’s engineering and technology sectors will continue to wither.

Different countries adopt different approaches. Those that succeed all have a realistic, coherent, consistent, targeted strategy, something the UK has lacked for many years.

David Hesketh CEng
By email

Who should clear up space debris?

It is amazing the International Space Station and similar habitable units do not get damaged considering the amount of debris above us, but why leave it up there? Tracking the various types of debris is probably the most difficult to achieve, with sizes ranging from humungous to dust size.

The IDEA-1 system from AstroScale described in the December 2015 issue of E&T (‘Private sector steps up in the space debris race’) will prove very useful if indeed it can pick out and track myriad parts of varying size, shape, velocity, direction and material. Yet what of the nations that deposited the debris in the first place? If it does not burn up in the atmosphere is there a chance of it hitting occupied areas on the ground or even striking an occupied aeroplane causing it to land prematurely or disintegrate whilst airborne? The chance is improbable, but not zero!

How many more companies will begin the ‘exercise’ and what sort of mechanisms will be in place for the removal of this space-borne debris? Is it not incumbent upon the countries of the companies that produced it?

Andrew Lavey MIET
Nuneaton, Warwickshire

IoT opportunities yet to come

It should come as no surprise that smaller, speculative Internet of Things (IoT) companies are being overshadowed by industry giants (‘Reality check: is our world really getting smart?’ November 2015).

History tells us that new technologies are led by integrated solutions to the point where the solutions become mature and can be modularised. We see this being played out going back to the electric light, the UK public telephone system, through to computers and now the IoT. The reasons are mainly that integrated solution providers can coordinate the complexities of the interfaces making up the end-to-end solution. These interfaces are not just technical but include operational and commercial processes.

For many years you were only allowed to buy a BT telephone to connect to the BT network, and even then it was unreliable. Some years later the system was sufficiently mature to modularise the system and allow consumers to buy any approved telephone. In contrast, in the USA attempts were made to increase competition by mandating laws to allow modularisation through competitive local exchange carriers before the system was ready, resulting in massive financial losses for the speculative companies.

There will be a place for modular IoT solutions, but their time has not yet come.

Stuart Black MIET
Frimley Green, Surrey

Measuring domestic electricity supply

In answer to James Bowen’s letter regarding the measured quantity for electricity meters (January 2016), the European Measuring Instruments Directive governs the measured values and accuracy class of domestic meters, and meters deployed in the UK must meet the requirements EN50470. Older meters that may still be in use and certified by Ofgem had to comply with IEC 601036 (now superseded by IEC 62052). In all cases the unit of measure is kWh; kW is real energy, not kVA.

Some industrial meters measure kVArh and power factor but this is to ensure cables and other infrastructure can carry the higher currents for non-unity power factor loads, not for energy billing purposes. Companies are charged if they exceed agreed power factor limits.

I’m not sure how Mr Bowen is performing his tests but if it’s with a clip-on ‘in-home energy monitor’ meter then the results he is seeing can be explained by the fact there is no voltage input as reference on such devices and they do measure kVA as a result even though they usually claim it’s kW. They are wildly inaccurate with inductive and capacitive loads. I noticed exactly the same phenomenon when I tested one in my house.

John Cowburn CEng FIEE
Chairman, BSI PEL 13 - Standards for Electricity Metering & Control Equipment

Obstacles to engineering

My educational experience in the 1970s and 1980s illustrates how mainstream education failed and, I am sure, continues to fail to encourage students to get their hands dirty on the hard sciences, medicine, mathematics and engineering.

During a careers advice session the ‘adviser’ asked what I wanted to do. “Something with electronics,” I replied. She took a cursory glance at a piece of paper and said: “Your grades are not good enough, do something else”. Thanks for the encouragement!

As the guinea-pig year for the new GCSEs we found our options to be limited. Enthused by playing with BBC ‘B’ computers in middle school, and owning an Acorn Electron at home, I was keen to take computer studies. Except I was in set 4 for maths and considered too thick.

Those in set 2 and above spent two years playing games. I had to try and learn by slavishly entering code from magazines, only to find I needed the ‘errata’ which would be published several weeks later. Hardly a surprise that I have no care for coding beyond HTML/CSS and a little BASH.

At 16, I had the sort of choice that still appears to blight many teenagers: try and get from Biggleswade to Dunstable each day to attend the only in-county technical college, or remain in the sixth form of my local school. Here, we found our technology teacher was scared of high-voltage electricity, microwaves and lasers. When I took my home-made helium-neon laser kit into school to demonstrate it, with its 8kV starting voltage and 2mW beam, he ran away.

Thankfully I am quite stubborn and ignored all advice from school - something I would recommend to all teenagers interested in engineering. I found a trainee role in a local company and spent four years attending North Herts College in Stevenage, studying part-time for a BTEC NC & HNC in electronic engineering - something I could have done two years earlier had Bedfordshire not been constrained by its borders. I moved from electronics to IT, and in 2007 achieved chartered IT professional status.

If my experiences are still being played out today, it is little wonder that teenagers are not interested in engineering. I am sure those who are will continue to find a lack of support for their educational requirements.

Gary Myers CITP MIET
Biggleswade, Bedfordshire

Seeking technical cul-de-sacs

I recently moved house and in clearing out my office found a draft for a paper I was working on over 25 years ago that never saw the light of day. The subject was the physical cause of an error burst during commissioning of high-speed single-mode optical fibre systems.

The systems would work well for a number of weeks, then experience a burst of errors but subsequently operate error free. On inspection the connectors were seen to have a liquid deposit. They were routinely cleaned and then, after a few weeks, the error burst would occur once more and the cycle was repeated.

The liquid was found to be an oil used in polishing which coincidentally was a pretty good refractive index matching fluid for the fibre. It was postulated the filling of an air gap by the oil reduced reflection noise and improved the system signal-to-noise performance, but halfway across the fibre was forming a Mach-Zehnder interferometer that caused almost total loss of light.

It was extremely difficult to get this to happen in the laboratory, although it was possible to simulate the effect by using an index matching liquid that evaporated in a few minutes and capturing the output with an optical spectrometer.

The paper was never published, but it made me think that there may be many such parked pieces of work which E&T readers might like to share. I am also interested in errors or cul-de-sacs where after some effort it was realised that the work should be stopped. If you would like to contribute please write to me at plugitinagain@gmail.com.

Iain Anderson
By email

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