IMI Magazine

IMI Magazine

Cover Feature - Who wants to be an engineer?

On the weekend of this year’s British Grand Prix, the next generation of motorsport engineers were in neighbouring Leicestershire taking part in a ‘mini Formula 1’. Organised by the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, Formula Student attracted 85 entries worldwide, with a team from the University of Hertfordshire coming top in the UK category.

But the eagerness of students to test their skills in motorsport design and construction is not reflected in engineering generally. In contrast to the Formula Student event, earlier in the year IMechE had to extend its deadline for 10 engineering scholarships because of the poor response. These scholarships, founded by Victorian engineer Sir Joseph Whitworth, regularly attracted well over 100 applications up to the mid 1990s, but this year only 10 had been received by the original closing date.

The scheme’s current failure was blamed by IMechE on a combination of government education policies and school careers officers persuading youngsters to stay on in the sixth form or attend higher education colleges rather than take engineering apprenticeships.

Lack of interest in engineering as a career appears to have extended even into the higher education sector, though, with government figures showing a decline since the late 1990s.

Alan Combes cites changes in the school curriculum as one of the main reasons for a shortage of talent embarking on engineering careers. Combes, head of the automotive engineering centre at the University of Hertfordshire, said the decision to introduce “half an A level” (AS) had resulted in a 20 per cent drop in youngsters studying for an A level. “This in turn has reduced the pool of young people embarking on an engineering degree course and universities in general have been struggling to fill places,” he said.

Christopher Macgowan, chief executive of the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT), commented: “Car manufacturers do reasonably well in attracting engineers because they have strong, familiar brands, but they’re fishing from a smaller pool.” Macgowan added that engineering as a career was still dogged by a poor image. “In countries like Germany, engineers are very well regarded. Here, anything that smacks of a craft skill is viewed as second rate – a 2/2 degree in psychology is more highly valued. It’s a terrible indictment of our society and something that must be put right if we are to compete in this technological age.”

Apathy can’t be blamed on lack of effort to drum up interest in engineering as a career. Two initiatives, Formula Schools and Formula 1 in Schools, as their names suggest, use the appeal of motorsport. World in Motion is another programme targeted at schools. Produced by the Society of Automotive Engineers in the US, it’s something that SAE’s branch in the UK (formerly the Institute of Vehicle Engineers) is trying to promote. But as its executive director James Walker explained: “The school curriculum is so tight these days that it’s proving difficult to introduce extra activities.”

Manufacturers and systems suppliers, too, are playing their part. BMW, for example, has complemented its education website with a section dedicated to motorsport, described as a “curriculum-based resource for 12-16-year-olds”. Delphi UK, which is looking to recruit around 30 engineers at one of its technical centres over the next nine months, has its eye further ahead by regularly visiting schools and universities. Then there are national bodies such as the Campaign to Promote Engineering, the Engineering Technology Board and the Automotive Academy all doing their bit to present the attractive face of engineering.

Rob Austin, who heads the Formula Schools scheme in which pupils have to build a 600mm radio controlled car from scratch, says there’s no lack of interest among youngsters, but funding poses more of a problem.

“Most of the money comes through Learning and Skills Councils and regional development agencies, but their paymasters are very fickle so it’s difficult to secure a steady stream of funding.” Around 100 schools are currently taking part in the programme, but Austin reported that 68 schools had to drop out last year because of lack of money. “We’re not talking huge sums here – around £1,000 per school to get it up and running and £13 to £20 for each participating student thereafter.”

Austin, who spent 10 years in manufacturing industry before joining a comprehensive school in Oxfordshire as head of faculty, said Formula Schools encouraged engineering skills which did not just apply to the automotive sector but across industry generally. 

But for young people who set their sights on becoming an engineer, the route is not encouraging. As James Walker at the SAE put it: “I know of one computer company where new recruits receive three to four weeks of training to become ‘engineers’, compared with the apprentice/university period of three years or longer.”

Walker believed that lack of status – earlier referred to by the SMMT’s Christopher Macgowan – was caused mainly by confusion over the definition of an engineer. “There’s an amusing story of one highly qualified aeronautical engineer whose heating boiler broke down and was told an engineer would be round that morning. ‘I don’t want the boiler redesigned,’ he said. ‘I want it repaired’.”

Alan Combes, who worked for Ford for 10 years, latterly as quality manager of the Puma model, said: “There’s a big misunderstanding about what a professional engineer is; the role gets lumped together with trade skills, not analytical skills.”

Commented James Walker: “Engineering is a generic term in this country, whereas in Germany it’s clearly defined and is protected by law.”

As a project engineer with Lotus at Hethel in Norfolk, Robert Savin works in a community of around 500 auto engineers of diverse skills – many devoted to Lotus’s consultancy work. Robert, 25, who has a Masters degree in mechanical engineering from Warwick University, previously worked for a car manufacturer in the Midlands and has been with Lotus for two years. “In my previous job, work was very narrowly focused, typically the design of a radiator hose on three different models, and it all got a bit boring.

“Here, we’re working on future models over the next 10 years and that’s much more rewarding.” Not in financial terms, though, for Robert recalls that many of his university friends went on to better paid jobs in financial services. “That’s where the money seems to be, but I’m not in this for the money – I suppose you could call it a vocation.”

However, pay is an issue which James Walker at the SAE feels strongly about. “A young chartered accountant can easily command £40,000 a year, but not his engineering counterpart, while those in IT can virtually write their own salary cheques.”

IMechE, which counts more than 12,000 auto engineers among its members, reports that typical salaries range from £20,000 for a newcomer to around £40,000 for senior managers. In a recent poll across all its 75,000 members, pay was cited as the main reason for recruitment problems, followed by a ‘boring’ image.

From an employer’s standpoint, Keith Price, engineering manager at Alpine, the audio and in-car navigation company, acknowledges that pay could be a contributory factor, but says it’s the more familiar problem of matching skills to demand. “We have plenty of applications for vacancies, but struggle to find those with the right skill base.”

Heading a 20-strong department of engineers, Price – who spent 20 years working for vehicle manufacturers – explained that Alpine’s work reflected the changes taking place in the auto industry at large as its products embraced more electronics features. “Five years ago we had two mechanical designers and one software developer. Now we still have two on the mechanical side, but four more on software.”

Andy Evans, HR director at Delphi, said that pay was “not an overriding issue”. As with Keith Price at Alpine, he said the biggest problem was a shortage of suitable candidates for vacancies at Delphi’s two engineering technical centres in Gillingham, Kent, and Park Royal in west London. “Over the past 12 months we have recruited 30 more engineers at Park Royal; we got what we were looking for in the end, but it took a long time,” said Evans, who added that openings ranged from design and manufacturing systems to project engineering and shopfloor operational support.

 It’s tempting to point the blame for the woes of auto engineering not only on pay and lack of status but also the decline of British manufacturing industry (a recent IMechE poll identified this as the single biggest cause). But Anthony Mc Donagh-Smith, editor of the SAE’s journal Vehicle Technology, disagrees. A BEng honours graduate whose earlier career was spent with ICI, DeBeers and National Grid Transco, he argues that the UK is reshaping its manufacturing base to smaller companies producing higher value products. “Britain can’t simply give up on technology and for it to succeed you need a steady stream of talent,” he said.

So having identified all the problems, what’s being done about them? The DTI has set up a ‘learning grid’ to co-ordinate efforts being made to stimulate interest in engineering. But as Rob Austin of Formula Schools notes: “There’s been four years of talking and only now has this initiative received some real funding.”