Chartered Management Institute: In my opinion

Chartered Management Institute Companion Kenneth Sanders says an understanding of technology is vital in managing modern enterprises.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Perhaps it is because we are so comfortable with our standard of living these days that we do not stop to consider the role of engineering in society. Even we managers can be unaware of the deep importance of this area to our businesses.

Everything we own has some form of engineering pedigree. For example, engineers have been involved in the acquisition, transport and production of the materials, the IT and printing processes and even the machinery that has produced this magazine. It is similar for the clothing, entertainment and communications industries. Our workplaces, homes and leisure activities are all critically dependent on engineering principles and processes.

Above all, engineering has allowed Britain to sustain its position as a leading nation, both in terms of creativity and innovation and in wealth generation. It is the engine of our standard of living. Yet the discipline is far too often viewed as a 'dirty' trade rather than a key profession.

Leaders in our banking, finance and service industries are often unaware of what these roles comprise and how they support our economic growth.

Engineers have an image problem beyond business as well. Isambard Kingdom Brunel may have been voted the second-greatest Briton in a BBC poll a few years ago, but ask many of today's school students who the most famous living British engineer is and it's likely that they will say Kevin, the motor mechanic on Coronation Street. Engineers are perceived as overall-wearing males with dirty fingernails and a rather parochial view of life.

There are doubts about whether we will have enough engineers in the future to meet the challenges we face. Although the number of engineering graduates each year remains reasonable, there are increasingly diverse demands for their skills, from the world of City finance to the media; and many also move on from technical to managerial roles. With high numbers of foreign-born students relocating overseas, many end up practising outside the UK.

As a result, there are already substantial skills shortages, with only half of engineering technician vacancies being filled. Industry also faces an ageing workforce, and there are grounds for concern that we are failing to attract our brightest young people into the discipline. Student numbers are falling, while numbers in the feeder subjects - maths, physics, and computer science - are also declining significantly. Only 25% of these places are filled by UK students.

So, what do we do? There are lessons for leaders in all disciplines.

First, they must recognise the importance of engineering, even within their own skill sets. An understanding of technology and the issues it raises is vital for effective management in modern enterprises. Moreover, by its very nature, engineering encourages the skills that industry is lacking in graduate entrants, such as innovation, team-building, problem-solving and communications - some of the very qualities that make good managers and leaders.

Second, we have to encourage young people to come into the discipline.

Engineering should become part of everyday education in the same way as music and physical education, ensuring that we have more people with an understanding of the subject. Although the curriculum is clearly very busy, I disagree with the argument that a core grounding in the basic academic subjects is sufficient. This fails to recognise the sheer creativity of engineering, which itself engenders skills applicable at every level of an organisation.

We should also be able to show that engineering offers an exciting and rewarding career by using modern examples to explain that it is not 'oily' at all but creative and exciting, involving computers and clean rooms, travel and personal development. Beyond this, we have to capture the imagination of people at the youngest age possible with practical experience. In my youth, it was through Meccano and building transistor portable radios.

It's difficult to do that today - try building an iPod in your spare time or repairing a mobile phone.

I call on managers in all sectors to champion this cause and ensure that their enterprise supports the development of future engineers. Companies can support individual development through extra-curricular activities.

This could include mentoring of school pupils by newly qualified engineers, opportunities for educational visits to workplaces or supporting an existing curriculum enrichment programme. One of the largest of these organisations is Young Engineers, of which I am chairman, which provides extra-curricular clubs. In 2004/5, we enabled more than 80,000 primary and secondary pupils to gain practical experience and apply lessons learnt in the classroom to myriad projects, activities and challenges.

My management career in technological and engineering businesses has been stimulating and rewarding and would not have been open to me without my engineering background. The leaders of UK plc must encourage more young people into the discipline and refresh themselves about its importance to their own businesses.

- CV: Kenneth Sanders was managing director of Power Innovations and sat on the board of Intellect, the UK electronics and IT Trade Association. He is a senior non-executive director of MicroEmissive Displays plc, a Fellow of the RSA and chairman of the Young Engineers.

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