Debate 8 - Paper 1

Ageing workforce: Where are tomorrow’s engineers?

Richard Haryott, Director, Ove Arup and Partners

We are all profoundly influenced in our everyday lives by our built environment. That it should lift the spirit, and enable us all to lead relative and fulfilling lives is of huge importance. And of course in a way that respects the environment, and future generations.

Engineers play an absolutely crucial role in shaping that environment. Without good engineers, life as we know it today could not continue, let alone advance. And many of us that have the luck to practise as skilled professionals in engineering the built environment, know that it is challenging, exciting, fulfilling and rewarding.

So why are we having this debate? And particularly in this country, where our engineers have a well deserved reputation around the world for excellence. A reputation founded on an engineering education which for many years has sought after by the best talent around the world, and widely copied elsewhere. Young people with ambition and talent should be queuing up to see a career in engineering.

However, there is a problem. And those of us who spend a considerable amount of time and effort in thinking about the education and training of our engineers now find ourselves working in a more confused and confusing environment than ever before.

This debate is not about SARTOR. This is just one of the ingredients, and clearly an important and influential one. There have been several other imputs of equal importance. The Engineering Council’s SARTOR report drew attention to common themes in perhaps half a dozen eminent studies - from the Royal Academy of Engineering, the CBI, EEF, DTI through to Dearing. Some of these themes are worth repeating:

  • More students of high potential needed in engineering courses.
  • More co-operation needed between schools, colleges, universities and employers.
  • More management and team working skills
  • The spread for best practice between engineers
  • Higher standards for the future.

The last of these needs to be stressed more than it has been.

It has been often said that higher standards are needed. And that is the main reason for the changes outlined in the SARTOR document.

But we need to be careful how we state that, and how we act on it. The statement can be taken to mean that current standards are not high. This is not the case. At the top end they have been, and still are excellent, comparing favourably with the best around the world. In the UK there is however a long tail in the provision of engineering courses, where entry standards are low, and the teaching standards variable. Output standards vary of course, and even with low entry standards, outputs can be good, although most are almost always biased towards vocational skills, and not to the broader interdisciplinary skills needed for those who need to think outside the box. And for those who need to design the increasingly complex systems in which all the specialist skills can be drawn together and flourish.

Let me return to the vision that young people with talent and ambition should be attracted to engineering courses. Clearly they are not. Or is it that clear what the situation is?

The Ove Arup Foundation, which originally provoked the debate which led to the formation of the Edge (and still in a modest way provides financial support to it) recently commissioned some research to try to better understand the issues. That has led to a scoping study by Professor David Gann and Dr Ammon Salter of SPRU at the University of Sussex. Copies of that report are now being widely circulated in the hope that informed debate and positive action will flow.

The scoping study is entitled “Interdisciplinary Skills for Built Environment Professionals”. Copies have been circulated to the Deputy Prime Minister, Ministers and Civil Servants in the Industry and Environment departments. And to CIC, the institutions, academia and so on.

The original catalyst for this scoping study was the fact that we are all staring at a potentially disastrous situation concerning attracting the highest calibre leaders into the building services field. That still needs further research and some creative thinking. But the issues are wider than that.

The study confirms that applications for built environment courses are falling rapidly. Standards appear to be declining. But are they? At the top end, leading universities still set very high entry standards and are apparently over-subscribed. Certainly this is not the case for most building services courses. There is also concern that the increasing demands and skills for tomorrow’s engineers will not be met unless there are changes made. Changes that will increase interdisciplinary understanding, and the qualities which will enable the best to lead and manage in the global economy.

To the question posed by the title of this debate, “Where are tomorrow’s engineers?”, we need to add “What will they look like?”

We live in a world where we will increasingly have to deliver higher quality, greater reliability, greater efficiency and economy, greater safety and environmental protection. This is rightly demanded by our customers. And it will lead to greater tensions between the need for more specialists, and more generalists with the interdisciplinary skills needed to integrate the whole.

Think about the specialist skills needed today to succeed in creating a more effective work place. A workplace which not only helps create wealth, but also creates enjoyment and wellbeing in the workforce. The two are of course inextricably linked. In many major commercial and industrial projects we already frequently use specialists in the following disciplines:

  • environmental planning
  • business analysis
  • brief definition
  • space planning, and changing work patterns
  • energy
  • transport
  • geotechnics
  • structures
  • building physics
  • complex analysis
  • production planning
  • assembly
  • project management
  • risk
  • safety
  • life cycle analysis

I needn’t go on. There are more. And will be even more in future. They will need to be better trained, and more aware of their influence on the whole, and not just in their own field of interest.

To make all this flourish, we need better generalists. Those who can understand the needs and opportunities presented by these different skills, and how they can best be integrated. I totally agree with those experts in “lean” thinking, like Professor Dan Jones, when they say that it is not enough to optimise sub processes. It is the whole that has to be optimised. And so we need more engineers with broader skills. Skills which will only be acquired within an education system that stimulates an enquiring mind, and which enhances the creative skills, and the social skills needed to lead teams.

So where are the engineers of tomorrow? And what will they look like?

Total applications to engineering courses in the built environment have fallen by more than 20% . Acceptances however have risen by about the same percentage. Does this mean standards are falling? It could be, but not at the top, apparently. And it seems that the number of foreign students has risen, right across the spectrum of provision. That is an important fact if we look to where engineers will come from.

Let us look at outputs. Some 30-40% of the best graduates do not go into engineering as such. High added value employers in business consultancy, accountancy and the law, attract many of them. They value their analytical skills, and their creative skills. So certainly, some of the engineers of tomorrow will be in other professions, and in positions of influence. That is a good thing.

And let us look at the issue of foreign students. An increasing amount of our output will be resident out of this country. Many top academic institutions overseas are seeking accreditation by the UK professional bodies. So a good many of tomorrow’s engineers will perhaps come from foreign organisations.

And what will they look like. There will be more specialists, and there will be more with a broader based education who can integrate the whole.

How are we going to encourage the best to join in? That is the debate. We must all participate in it, and not leave it to someone else.

We will need to be able to spot winners. Will that come from looking for those with 24 A level points in three narrow disciplines? I don’t think so. In my own firm, over 20% of our graduate intake is sponsored by us through university. We choose them before we know their A level results. We look for people with a wide interest in life, with interests beyond 3 A level disciplines. Most of course do well in A levels, but it is that way round. And of course, a large number do not even take A levels. They come from overseas. The best have a broad interest and natural curiosity to learn. Universities, employers, the institutions and government must all work together to help grow that natural curiosity, limit the growth of new ideas and greater interdisciplinary. The best universities will rise to the challenge. Working with the institutions and employees and other universities they will be able to design and finance the broadly based courses needed for success. Inevitably there will be fewer of them. Distance learning will flourish alongside traditional firms. What all that means for numbers of applicants remains to be seen. I think they will increase.

And finally, let me turn to the question of where are tomorrow’s building services engineers? More will come from broad based civil engineering courses, with final year or post graduate courses to develop their interest in building systems. This will certainly need co-operation between universities, employers, the institutions and government. And it will require investment. It will probably also need a change of name from Building Services Engineer. What to? Building Physicist? Engineer? Chartered Engineer? Or perhaps Civil Engineer, with different core skills?

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