Letters to the editor: volume 18, issue 2
Image credit: Patrick Tomasso/Unsplash
In the March 2023 issue of E&T, readers discuss the routes they took to become engineers, IT literacy, domestic wiring problems and more.
UK business needs to look past qualifications
When I left school in 1977, I walked out of the gates after my last exam and with no career advice went straight into an electrical apprenticeship, as that’s where most boys went then. A very small number went on to college and university.
Most 16-year-olds haven’t a clue what they want in life – I have five children, so I have some knowledge about this. Three obtained degrees, one didn’t and he has done well with college qualifications. My youngest is following his dream in music. I so wish I’d had the opportunities he now has.
It’s true having a degree can make you more employable. My daughter has given up teaching, sick of working 60+ hours a week, no free weekends, constant targets, stress, no life basically. Chained to an education system that is at breaking point.
She has now moved into industry, working for a global engineering company. She has a chemistry degree but no engineering background, but that didn’t stop the company grabbing her immediately. Why? Because they can reboot her, educate, train and nurture her. She is seen as a valuable asset and the future of the company.
We have an enormous young talent pool in the UK. Some companies need educating in how to use that resource and see past the qualifications, or lack of them. Maybe more career advertising on social media? Companies need to reach out in new ways.
There is a skills shortage, but who is to blame?
Antoni P Rivans CEng MIET
Careers advice alone is not enough
I admit to laughing when I read the editor’s letter in the February 2023 issue of E&T asking readers about the careers advice they received at school. In 1952, it was realised that I had to have a GCE in physics if I wanted to work in electronics. I had a meeting with my school’s headmaster, to discuss studying for this at night school at the city’s technical college. His reply was: “You want to go into electronics? Don’t be ridiculous, boy.”
Fortunately, my parents took it to the city’s director of education and I was given the necessary permission. I’m proud to say I managed a degree in electrical engineering and a career in electrical engineering research in the UK.
I have spent almost 20 years of my retirement as part of Australia’s STEM Professionals in Schools initiative, working in primary schools. I have enjoyed a high degree of freedom on how I interact with the children, working largely in groups of around eight. The method I have used is a complete contrast to ‘talk and chalk’. The small group size allows monitoring of all the children in the group and detection of something not having been understood. The sessions become highly interactive, with children being able to interrupt and ask questions. It becomes a method of measuring the success of a session by the extent and depth of the questions they ask.
Overall, I believe primary school children are capable of dramatically more than is generally believed. The level of interest in science and computing is staggering. If the flame is lit at this point, they will be fully aware of what interests them most by 19 and will drive their own learning. Careers advice alone is not enough.
There’s more to STEM careers than computing
As someone who was disadvantaged by receiving little career advice while at school, February’s issue of E&T dealing with skills shortages and careers was one that I welcomed. I felt, however, that the emphasis on IT opportunities was overdone, bearing in mind that only 6.3 per cent of the UK’s workforce is employed in the sector compared with 18 per cent who work in engineering as a whole.
For most engineers and technologists, IT is simply a means to an end – a tool for designing better utilities, logistic networks, factories, homes, offices and public buildings. To convey the impression that STEM is synonymous with computers, programming and data analytics is misleading and fails to open the eyes of our young people to much wider (and potentially more varied and fulfilling) career opportunities in other socially beneficial fields of technological endeavour.
Andrew Wyatt CEng MIET
Rowland’s Castle, Hants
Work hard, or become an engineer
Before retirement, I worked in an engineering training group and, among other roles, we recruited and monitored engineering apprentices. We also organised visits of school pupils to local engineering companies. At the end of one visit, the pupils were gathered in the foyer and the teacher leading them said: “If you don’t work hard at your studies, you will end up working in a place like this.” Enough said.
Richard Brown IEng MIET
UK lags on IT literacy
One of the gaping skill shortages in the UK is IT skills. Currently IT, computer science or whatever it is being called these days, is not on the National Curriculum. It should be compulsory along with English and mathematics.
During the heart of the pandemic my daughter was expected to know how to use Zoom for her learning. It seems to have been assumed that all children would have a computer or smartphone, a tablet device, a broadband connection, an attached camera and microphone, knowledge of the standard Microsoft Office packages, and the knowledge to obtain and use Zoom.
None of this is taught in schools. It is expected that the students will automatically acquire this information themselves. Our students are way behind other countries who seem to be more computer and IT literate than we are in the UK.
We need to add another compulsory subject to the National Curriculum to plug the gap that is emerging in these skills.
Lorne Mason MIET (Mr)
Do ballpark figures add up?
If the UK is to urgently reduce carbon dioxide emissions, will wind, solar and batteries be our miraculous saviour? To check whether a solution is viable and in the right ballpark, engineers perform simple ‘back of the envelope’ calculations.
The average annual electricity bill is £2,500. At a capped 35p per unit this gives the average domestic energy usage at 10kWh per day. In the UK this winter we have already had several week-long spells of very calm, cold and dull weather, during which wind and solar has produced near-zero output, leaving an energy gap to be filled, some say by battery power. An electric-vehicle-size battery of typically 60kWh capacity would power a household for about six days. Therefore the 28 million UK households would require at least 35 million EV batteries to provide electricity for these week-long gaps at an investment cost of about £200bn.
Alternatively, seven ‘expensive’ nuclear generators at an investment cost of £180bn would fill these energy gaps, have a lifespan five times that of a battery and, as a bonus, generate electricity continuously for the rest of the year whatever the weather.
Why let reality stand in the way of faith and enormous business opportunities?
Wiring problems mirrored in the USA
Roger Edwards (Letters, February 2023) relates problems with the wiring when he moved into a three-bedroom bungalow that was built in 1963. I experienced a similar problem when I moved into a similar property, built in 1970, here in Florida.
Because of a copper shortage in the late 1960s, due to the Vietnam war, builders were allowed to use solid-conductor aluminium wire for low-voltage (110V) lighting circuits. Copper wire was required for the circuits used for heat pumps, electric stoves, washing machines and refrigerators.
Today, replacement of worn-out low-voltage wall sockets requires the use of special copper/aluminium products. For connecting copper wire directly to aluminum wire, one has to use a special anti-oxidation liquid brushed into the aluminum wire.
There was also a significant fire threat associated with a certain brand of distribution circuit breaker box. We were advised to periodically check the temperature of this metal-cased box with our hands to see if it was hot and needed to be repaired.
Peter Brooks MIET
Palm Bay, Florida, USA
Time to look again at UK plug design
I agree with Mike Travers’ comments on electrical safety regulations (Letters, February 2023) and would add that perhaps it is time to reconsider the BS1363 fused plug. It is fine at 2kW (10A), but continuous use at 3kW (13A) is very problematical, especially discolouration at the live pin and the socket due to overheating at the fuse grips. This is a cumulative problem since the heating (2.25 times that at 2kW due to the square law) weakens the copper grips, further increasing their resistance and therefore the heating.
The BS1363 plug/socket should no longer be considered fit for purpose at anything over 10A and the ring main system should be replaced by radial wiring with non-fused plugs. In the meantime, consumers should be taught to notice the effect of discolouration at the live pin and corresponding socket – and to recognise a fishy smell as an early warning.
William Lyons CEng FIET
One interesting aspect of the Second World War Pipe Line Under The Ocean (Pluto) project was not mentioned in the Eccentric Engineer column in the February 2023 issue of E&T . Equipment for the Dungeness area terminals was brought in by the miniature 15in (381mm) gauge Romney Hythe & Dymchurch Railway and installed in inconspicuous beach bungalows so there was nothing for enemy aircraft to notice.
John R Batts
Keep an eye on loft-mounted electrics
Over the Christmas and new year period I decided to replace a bathroom ceiling fan that had been unattended in the loft for at least 25 years. Its condition was a little alarming, as shown in the photo. The scorching is interesting as the CE requirements are that the components within the fully enclosed plastic box should not get sufficiently hot to scorch the PCB.
The moral might be that it’s best to regularly check that a loft-mounted extractor fan isn’t showing signs of overheating and that it hasn’t been covered by the loft insulation. Or better still, replace it with one that has the timer electronics in the bathroom ceiling cowl where one can see its condition at a glance.
Dr Neil Cooke CEng FIET
Heat pumps, hydrogen and fossil fuels
It seems that that MPs doubt the viability of using hydrogen to fuel domestic boilers, preferring heat pumps instead. But most heat pumps will be fed from the national grid, where solar and wind power will have to be backed up by enormous amounts of expensive energy storage in the form of hydrogen. Do MPs not understand that?
The government expects to deliver only 5GW of hydrogen production by 2030. That will be nowhere near enough to back up around 100GW of solar and wind power, whose average output is only around 30 per cent of that over the year.
It must be clear that we will have to keep burning fossil fuels until well beyond 2030 – not forgetting the hydrogen demand for transport and industry – and that we need some professionals on the Commons select committee.
For now, we must stop penalising fossil fuels, to avoid power rationing and power cuts, which will only add to the misery of the millions who are in fuel poverty.
Roger J Arthur CEng MIEE
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