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Not just about things

It was gratifying to hear IET president Naomi Climer on Radio 4’s ‘The Life Scientific’, talking about women in engineering, among other topics. It was stated that maybe women are more interested in ‘people’ and men in ‘things’; this hypothesis was offered as a possible reason for the under-representation of women in our profession. On reflection, I do not see how this line of reasoning can be sustained.

Although there are a lot of ‘things’ in engineering, all the stages of engineering development, from requirements capture to final commissioning, involve significant interaction between engineers and people at large, the users. Failure to provide the correct interaction between users and equipment/systems is a regular source of disquiet among users, leading to apparent technical failure.

The requirement for interaction with people is explicitly stated by the Engineering Council in its professional registration competencies and in our own mission statement! The implication therefore is that those of us who talk to potential recruits must be as positive about the human interaction as they are about the things.

Michael J Newton FIET

Let’s stick with British wiring

The harmonisation of standards across Europe is a worthwhile objective, particularly in the electrical installation industry, but does it always result in improved standards?

In April 2006 the Cenelec standard for fixed wiring came into force and as a result the UK had to adopt European fixed-wiring colours, i.e. for single phase we had to change from red and black to brown and blue, and for three-phase systems from red, yellow and blue to, would you believe, brown, black and grey. Not exactly sensible colours are they? Especially when you realise that blue is a phase colour in a three-phase system and a neutral conductor in the ‘new’ system, Black is a neutral conductor in the old single-phase system and a phase conductor in the ‘new’ system.

It is only a matter of time before the UK has to adopt European socket outlets and plugs. There is already a drive away from ring final circuits in favour of radial circuits that will pave the way for the phasing out of the ring final circuit and the 13A socket outlet and fused plugs.

British travellers have probably all experienced the poor quality of the wiring in continental holiday hotels and apartments. Socket outlets and plugs seem to be of a very poor quality, very flimsy and not at all robust when compared to 13A equipment.

The British system using ring final circuits and fused 13A plugs was introduced in 1947. After much thought and debate the IEE realised the problems caused by using radial circuits comprising 5A and 15A round-pin socket outlets and unfused plugs. Surely it would be safer for our European friends to adopt the UK system, but that will never happen; as with the colour of fixed-wiring conductors, we will have to change to suit them and the standards will fall to the lowest common denominator, yet again.

Barry Thorpe IEng MIET
By email

Trouble with titles

Reading recent letters in E&T about chartered engineer status for retired IET members, and how their CPD is monitored, I strongly sensed the frustration that IET members have with CEng, which really has very little value in retirement or outside the British Isles.

Living in continental Europe, I gave up these letters many years ago. One immediate consequence was that I was no longer asked to carry out membership interviews, which I previously enjoyed, but that alone can hardly justify the subscription. More recently, I discovered that the IET requires one to be chartered to act as a mentor. I’m not going to pay for that privilege either, but I can’t help thinking that, in refusing the services of Fellows who are not CEng, the IET is shooting itself in the foot.

Dr Michael Wrigley
Prague, Czech Republic

Barry Whiting makes an excellent point about using the EurIng prefix more widely (Letters, April 2016). In fact, I would take it further by granting the title ‘Eng’ to all qualified CEng and IEng registrants. Made legal through the Privy Council by exactly the same process as EurIng, it would help to alleviate the problem of false ‘engineers’ who cause a huge number of complaints within our community - and all for little or no cost.

The downside is that so very few people and companies actually bother to recognise an unusual title. Aside from my passport and IET membership card, I have no official documents whatsoever showing EurIng. My employer told me that “our computer doesn’t have a suitable title for you so we will just call you ‘Mr’” and I’m not even allowed to put EurIng on my business cards. In trying to buy a Railcard, I was told that “EurIng/EurIng Dr are not titles we have chosen to recognise at present”. (How many engineers work in the rail industry, I wonder?)

I also have a letter from one particular company telling me that “we refuse to recognise your title because we have to provide a balanced service for all our customers”. No, I have no idea what they mean by that either, but it goes to show that there is still a huge amount of education needed, since the general public has absolutely no idea who we are or what we do.

EurIng Dr Des Howlett CEng MIET
By email

Does CPD model work in real life?

The Engineering Council requires chartered engineers to do 30 hours of continuing professional development and retired chartered engineers 10 hours to maintain their entitlement to chartered status. However, the ‘plan, do, record and review’ cycle seems to me to be based on the notion that engineers can plan their career trajectory, so that the do, record and review parts will fall into place nicely. My experience is quite otherwise. I have never had a career plan, nor have most of my contemporaries and colleagues.

Throughout my career I was so busy there was never any time to record - or reflect on - the work. None of my career developments was ever planned, so they were not recorded or reflected on. No element of career development as suggested by CPD evangelists has ever been done. The only box-tickable CPD-recognised training I ever received was a one-month residential summer school on economics. I have never used the knowledge professionally.

The documented CPD model now adopted by the Engineering Council and IET is pointless and misleading in respect of its relevance either to career development or as a useful element of a CV. When I was appointed by my engineering director to run the team developing a fibre-optic gyro, I asked, “Why me?”. He replied that I had a track record of taking on novel engineering challenges, and so expected I would again be able to do so. He was not checking my CPD record!

Professional development is achieved as it is needed, not as a result of planning a career. At no point in my career could I have foreseen what I might need in the next year. That’s the whole point of engineering in industry and research in academia: it is about creating or discovering new things. Engineers are primarily judged by what they have done rather than ticks on a form. Most formal training is half a generation out of date and so is largely useless at the cutting edge of technological advances.

Frank Everest CEng FIET
By email

CB confusion

In Justin Pollard’s otherwise excellent ‘Eccentric Engineer’ article on the walkie-talkie (E&T May 2016), he seems to confuse amateur radio and CB. To transmit on amateur radio frequencies you need a licence. This entitles you not only to operate, using a wide range of frequency bands and modulation methods, but also (in most jurisdictions) to conduct experiments and build apparatus for that purpose. The amateur radio service has been in existence since before the First World War and its current rules and regulations are written into the ITU Telecommunications Convention.

On the other hand (in the UK at least), you do not need a licence to use CB but you are required to use type-approved equipment in two relatively narrow bands at the high end of the HF spectrum.

John Rabson
By email

VW origins

Few people realise that the VW designers behind the car design described in the Classic Project article (E&T April 2016) were in fact not Germans, but Austro-Hungarians. The design for a cheap German car was started by Joseph Ganz in the 1920s. Ganz, a Jewish engineer, was born in Budapest. Another designer in the mid-1920s working on a similar project was Bela Berenyi, son of a Hungarian father, born near Vienna. It is said that Berenyi had more patents to his name than Thomas Edison. Many of the ideas of these two engineers were used in the VW. Ferdinand Porsche himself was born in Maffersdorf, at the time in the Austro-?Hungarian Empire, now in the Czech Republic.

George Corvin CEng MIET
By email

The Brexit debate

Engineers contribute to trade, employment and welfare by having bright ideas which turn into new or modified inventions that go on to become mass-produced products. The UK trades with Europe, and should we leave the EU access to the single market would deteriorate as the other 27 members may impose import tariffs on British made goods. On the other side of the argument, we would be free to trade with other nations such as America, India or China. The further you send your manufactured goods, the more your transport costs are going to increase.

Whatever the decision is, if it is a good result for the country the politicians will take all the praise, and if it is a bad result they will blame the British people for making the wrong decision. I urge fellow engineers to vote to stay in the EU, as it could be the case of ‘better the devil you know’.

FW Fisher EngTech MIET
By email

Staying in the EU is not to vote for the status quo. The EU is committed to a path of greater financial and political union that the UK has opted out of, so we will become increasingly marginalised from the centre, and therefore increasingly less influential.

On the other side of the coin, the EU does more trade with the UK than the UK does with the EU, so how hardball is the EU going to be when negotiating a post-Brexit trade deal?

I don’t believe that there is a skills shortage either. There is a shortage of training budgets in major companies, and there is a shortage of imagination among hiring managers in identifying transferable skills. Companies used to train their staff to move up to the next level, and nurtured careers within the company. Now, they only want to recruit, from other companies, people who are already doing the job that they are looking to fill. The ‘skills gap’ can be solved overnight by creating some new training budgets and a change in attitude from hiring managers. We don’t need trained engineers from Europe. We just need to make proper use of the incredible talent that we already have in the UK.

Clive Reader
By email

I was disappointed to read in the Sunday Telegraph that Naomi Climer, “president of the Institution of Engineering and Technology, a trade body with 167,000 members” is quoted as putting forward a view on our behalf that leaving the EU would be a threat to engineering.

Our president should be concentrating on raising the status of engineers and not expressing what appears to be an unbalanced view of the UK leaving the EU. She is also quoted as saying: “The interests of engineering and technology may best be served by the UK remaining within the EU.”

A lot is written about the effects of uncertainty that leaving the EU would bring, such as difficulty in recruiting the engineers from overseas that we have failed to train ourselves – mainly as a result of the low status of engineers in this country. This is what she should be addressing.

It is claimed that EU exit would also weaken the UK’s ability to influence global engineering standards. We do not have much influence on international standards after dilution of our views by working through the EU, and I would rather put my faith in the views of James Dyson, who is of the view that EU standards are holding back UK innovation.

James Davies FIET
Oxted Surrey

History tells us that the European nations have been notoriously aggressive, warring over territorial disputes, nationalistic imperatives and religious conflicts. For a community to succeed, it was considered vital that nations would have to relinquish some of their power and transfer it to a transnational body in charge of the common good.

The principle of transferring some of the national authority to a European one is laudable but precarious considering human nature, and is now threatened by Brexit. The leaders of all the EU nations, the USA, the Irish Republic, and of most Commonwealth countries advise against Brexit. Putin would be delighted if we left.

Without the UK the EU would be weaker, and less capable of dealing with security and climate change, two of the most pressing problems we are facing in the near future. The EU, like the United Nations, embodies high aspirations. Both are imperfect organisations but the best that fallible human beings have managed to devise as a protection against their own destructive tendencies.

It would be a great blow to mankind’s best aspirations and to our future generations if we voted to reject this enterprise.

Professor Leon Freris FIET
Radlett, Herts

What is currently known as the European Union is often discussed as if it were simply a free-trade organisation. In fact, it is much more than that. Its founding fathers envisaged the creation of what amounts to a United States of Europe. As far as I am aware, their successors still have that aim.

John Rabson
By email

The May E&T article on the ‘Big Four Issues’ relating to EU membership omitted to mention statistics which tell us that something is not right.

EU output has fallen from 30 per cent of world GDP in 1980 to 17 per cent in 2015. UK exports to the EU are down to 43 per cent while exports beyond the EU have risen to 57 per cent. Surely we should focus increasingly on trade with countries that are on the rise – not in decline.

Around 93 per cent of UK companies don’t even export to the EU but must comply with its regulations. That adversely affects over five million SMEs, employing around 25 million people, representing around 99 per cent of all businesses.

Big companies lobby for EU standards, which suit them because they want to protect their markets and investments against competition. But that will not help the EU economy to advance in the longer term.

We can level the playing field by stopping lobbyists, big party donors and unelected officials from making life difficult for SMEs – by leaving the EU. The EU will not confront these issues because it is more preoccupied with harmonisation, regulation and protective tariffs, than with greater competition, innovation and productivity.

Roger Arthur CEng MIET
By email

There is an unwillingness on both sides of the debate to address one key dimension: how many of the current generation of young engineering graduates continue to struggle to progress in the profession.

The “Britain desperately needs more engineers” line does not correlate with the fact there are already many home-grown graduates available who are either underemployed or out of work. Many never enter the profession at all and head for other sectors such as finance.

Calls to increase migration are motivated by the desire of big business to undercut and/or suppress wages. That is not to say we should not welcome highly skilled workers in sensible numbers, but many concerned British parents will rightly be asking questions of a market that has seen their children leave university with astronomical debts but little or nothing to show for them.

Conversely, the Brexit side has not formulated a convincing argument for how it would ensure that our industries and our educational institutions remained competitive in an ever changing globalised world.

As it stands, I will be horrified if my children one day express a desire to become engineers, knowing the challenges they will face. Sadly for them and our future generations, I very much doubt either potential outcome of June’s referendum will yield positive change in the short to medium term.

Chris Downie MIET
By email

Remember when Britain was the dirty man of Europe? Where would we be now without EU pressure to clean up? UKIP’s policy is to repeal climate change legislation and return to coal. Many in the Conservative right wing lean in the same direction. What would be the attitude of UK engineering to such a step? Make some quick profit from smokestack industries, before falling hopelessly behind our low-carbon competitors?

Richard Riggs MIET
Abingdon, Oxfordshire

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