THE FUTURE OF ENGINEERING
Speech

Engineering Professors' Conference, IMechE, London

My challenge today is to ask ourselves how a subject as supremely interesting and important as engineering could possibly have been transformed into something that so many regard as dull.

For that question goes to the heart of why we are having such difficulty attracting the skills we need into engineering and why we are so shamefully poor at attracting young women in particular into engineering careers.

That failure must be put right.

If medicine, accountancy and law can all bring in broadly even numbers of male and female graduates why can’t engineering?

Whether it’s apprenticeships or degree courses; year 6 or A-levels, we must make it clear that engineering is open and attractive for girls and women as a career.

It is my contention that if we told the positive story about modern engineering – if we marketed it better – we would persuade boys and girls, young men and young women, in far greater numbers that their future is in engineering.

And good marketing involves making sure the product is right too.

Let me explain.
THE TRUTH ABOUT ENGINEERING

British engineers have defined much of the modern world from the industrial revolution to the digital age.

From Brunel, Trevithick and Stephenson through to Whittle and beyond to Baird and Berners-Lee.

And there are many others who deserve greater fame than they enjoy – people such as Percy Shaw, inventor of the reflective road stud, better known as the Cat’s Eye, Ralph Benjamin who developed the trackball mouse and Tom Elliott, the father of thermal imaging.

It’s genuinely remarkable how many examples of great British engineering there are, changing the way we conduct our lives but too often taken for granted.

If the Germans had come up with any one of these, let alone the world-wide web, they would have called a national holiday.

And it doesn’t end there.

In the UK we are delivering excellence in some of the world’s most demanding engineering challenges. The list is impressive.

Look at Crossrail - engineering a new rail link through the heart of a global city, already criss-crossed by underground networks of communications and utilities. Or the plans for the massive new Thames Tideway Tunnel. The project management skills of companies like CH2MHill are crucial to this success.

We have the world’s second largest aerospace sector and we are leaders in space engineering too.

A quarter of the world’s communication satellites are made in Stevenage by Airbus - and QinetiQ has developed world leading Ion Thrusters that will power the European Space Agency’s mission to Mercury.

Everywhere you look from computer gaming to aerospace, from Formula One to pharmaceuticals you can see British engineers delivering world-beating excellence.

But what about the future? And in particular, what about the imminent skills crisis in engineering?

Most young people never even stop to think about the engineering miracles that surround them. Like having information available from the other side of the world, in the palms of your hands, in an instant.

Still we call the people who mend washing machines and gas boilers “engineers”.

Culture is the problem.

We don’t celebrate engineering. And that’s got to change.

It is vital that we continue to try to change the public view of engineering, especially of young people. To persuade them that engineering is creative, exciting and makes a difference – and is well-rewarded.

That public view must change to ensure we can recruit the right quantity and quality of graduates and apprentices from a diverse range of backgrounds. And that we retain those we do recruit.

We’re still not as good as Germany or Scandinavia for recognising the status and value of engineers or collaborating across sectors.

Changing this will take a collaborative effort across academia, the public sector and commerce.

And the way we manage people will have to change too.

Skills will need to move across these sectors quickly and easily if we are to pull through the vital innovations of the 21st Century and de-risk the future.

Engineering will have no real future unless this change happens.

MAKING THE CHANGE

So British engineering needs to sharpen up its act and understand that the marketing of what it does is as important as the products and projects it delivers.

I’ve been trying to encourage this for a long time now, and many others are trying too.

I see signs of hope, but we must understand that industry, academia and government will not be able to help sort out the problem of recruitment effectively until the engineering institutions set their own houses in order. That means speaking with one, unified voice on what needs to be done.

So it’s good to see the Royal Academy of Engineering working to do precisely this.

We need discipline brought to the chaotic multitude of schemes to promote engineering to young people - while demonstrating an unwavering commitment to diversity.

So it’s good to see Engineering UK working to do precisely this.

We need more role models, offering young people at school a chance to understand at first-hand what modern engineering really is.

So it’s good to see the STEM Ambassadors working to do precisely this.

But we all need to work harder. Engineering needs a properly funded, professionally run marketing campaign.

NEW METHODS, NEW SKILLS

This doesn’t matter just because we like engineering. It matters because engineering is the discipline which underpins innovation and growth.

Without the underlying engineering expertise in problem solving and design, innovation won’t happen.

Engineering is fundamental to improving productivity and competitiveness.

Just as we need innovation in new products and services, we also need innovation in the way they are produced, delivered and sustained. Engineering is at the heart of this too.

Look at the remarkable collaborative Manufacturing Technology Centre at Ansty, part of the High Value Manufacturing Catapult.

Here you can see the massive potential of applying innovative engineering (much of which is software based) to the manufacturing process.

Engineering innovation is increasingly achieved through such collaborative models, where large and small companies work with academics to develop new manufacturing technology.

Not only to develop the best, but to be globally competitive.

Indeed in my conversations with industry a theme that comes up all the time is the need for university engineering departments to work more closely with industry. I do acknowledge, though, that this is easier said than done.

Universities can find it takes really hard work and an intensely practical approach to engage the parts of industry that matter.

This is usually because the most influential decision makers (Chief Engineers and Chief Technology Officers) too often lack the time or inclination to invest in conversations with academia.

Universities like Cranfield also believe more can be done to combine business management and engineering disciplines within the University.

It’s also vital that more university departments and employers work with each other to develop relevant and inspiring curricula and effective work placements (we used to call them sandwich courses). That way students will meet real engineers - role models from industry.


THE KIND OF PEOPLE WE NEED

To attract the talent we need, especially those worryingly elusive young women, we need to explain the diversity of modern engineering.

In defence engineering I was privileged to see at close quarters some of the most complex engineering systems in existence. A fast jet or a nuclear powered submarine are creatures of staggering complexity to design, build and maintain. They require exceptional systems engineering skills to be able to design, modify and operate them. And such skills are in short supply.

But many of those who contribute significantly to this process are not systems engineering specialists.

Some have done first degrees in maths or physics, but now exploit their analytical skills, domain knowledge and creativity in doing engineering – designing systems and products that do things really well. This includes the software, electronics, modelling, development of handheld apps and the big data aspects of engineering.

Systems don’t just have to be built – they also have to be sustained. And that requires different knowledge and passion.

Organisations both public and private are coming to rely on highly specialised external expertise to maintain or operate their critical assets – whether fixed or mobile - as this depth of knowledge is no longer always available within their own organisations.

The suppliers - companies like Babcock - have the expertise to design and shape support solutions for new and existing customers, helping to create value for the customer. Around half of the revenues of Rolls Royce now comes from ‘services’.

And this leads to a related point about systems.

Increased urbanisation and population growth, combined with the increasing uncertainty of weather events caused by climate change will require greater engineering and infrastructure resilience.

We can no longer simply manage infrastructure assets – we must manage infrastructure networks and systems.

So complex systems of all kinds will require new types of engineer - and engineering will need to become a broader professional church in the future.

More and different actors will be drawn to the problem solving which lies at the heart of the engineer’s world.

That’s also because the nature of innovation is changing too.

ENGINEERING INNOVATION

It was my time as a defence minister that led me to appreciate how vital British engineering skills are to our national security. And I became fascinated by the process of engineering innovation in both the defence and civil sectors.

During the industrial revolution, industry led the way. The revolutions in technology came from entrepreneurial engineers.

Steam, machinery and the extraction and refinement of raw materials were focussed on commerce and trade. Many were then adapted for the military – ironclad warships, steam driven battleships and aircraft. Even the tank owed its origins to the tractor!

The global conflicts of the 20th Century – the First and Second World Wars and the Cold War - changed that with Governments taking a leading role and huge amounts of civil technological innovation coming from defence research work done in-house by governments.

This has been led by the likes of DARPA in the USA or DERA here in the UK, the predecessor of today’s QinetiQ, or under their direct control in industry. Many of their innovations, such as the jet engine and the internet, then span out into the civil sector.

With the rising demands of affluent and demanding consumers and the increasing speed of innovation, most technology development is now once more being done outside government – and much of it in Asia. This creates both opportunities and threats.

Loss of technological edge may weaken Western superiority, leave our militaries outclassed and financial systems insecure. But it may also save governments millions in development costs if they retain the ability to spin in opportunities whilst mitigating and defeating threats.

Even before the post-Cold War proliferation of technology the trend was already towards teams of innovators rather than individuals.

Now the proliferation of technology and digital revolutions have created an opportunity to refine and innovate technology through crowd sourcing of ideas, problems, finance and solutions. However, this less stable and predictable era brings new challenges and also requires new skills.

INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY AND CYBER SECURITY

All businesses, and engineering ones are no different, like stability and certainty to make investment decisions.

One of the reasons Britain industrialised first was that we were a relatively stable society compared to our continental competitors.

Our island people were free from invaders and the relative stability and rule of law present in Great Britain created the conditions for success. We were able to develop and protect our intellectual property.

In today’s increasingly globalised economy, technology proliferation means that not only is there a greater number of people involved in developing technology but also it has become much more difficult to protect innovation from theft. Sometimes on a small scale but often on an organised basis by criminal or sponsored actors.

It’s an open question whether this breaking down of barriers and potential loss of IP will make investing in ground breaking technology too risky or whether it will facilitate a global ecosystem of innovation.

As our competitors have proved, reverse engineering the innovations of others is a definite skill. It may not be cricket, but it happens and we probably need to accept this reality more explicitly.

Yet again, this changes the skill set we need in British engineering.

This new world, an increasingly uncertain and unstable place, has created new technological vulnerabilities; cyber security is all.

These vulnerabilities mean that lone wolves, terrorist organisations, organised crime syndicates or aggressive state actors can now wreak catastrophic disruption on financial and other vital systems.

The competitiveness and security of Britain depends on having the knowledge and expertise available to adapt to meet these new threats, whether that’s from terrorists, climate change or scarcity of resources.

Other big changes, like the pressures of an ageing population, will also demand creativity, collaboration and innovation from our engineers.

To secure prosperity and growth in the future, to protect our living standards and our security, we will have to crowd source innovation and agility from the young people coming out of our schools and into our universities.

And, because technology moves so fast, lifelong learning and an ability to learn new subjects are increasingly important too.

ENTREPRENEURS

Some of the necessary qualities are unchanged though.

Many of our most memorable engineers have also had those qualities of entrepreneurship and business acumen.

Entrepreneurship remains essential. We need engineers capable of converting ideas into business propositions to solve a need, to generate profits and maintain our prosperity.


CONCLUSION

There are things we can know about the future.

• Technological innovation will continue at a rapid pace;
• The world will be intensely interconnected;
• The providers, operators and users of infrastructure will have a closer relationship
• Those involved with technology will need to be multidisciplinary; and
• Social, cultural, political, and economic forces will impact technological innovation – and vice versa.

So we also know that the future of engineering lies in successful future engineers coming from diverse backgrounds and having

• strong analytical skills,
• practical ingenuity,
• good communication skills,
• business and management knowledge,
• leadership,
• high ethical standards,
• professionalism,
• dynamism,
• agility,
• resilience,
• flexibility,
• willingness to work cooperatively,
• commitment to lifelong learning,
• and perhaps most importantly of all, creativity.

Those who develop and own engineering and technology will shape society. So the future of engineering is about the future of our society. And it is changing fast.

That is an exacting and exciting prospectus to lay down to the young people of today in that marketing campaign we so urgently need.

ENDS


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