Engineering debate: whither China?

Alan Sugar might have been wrong, but when it comes to engineering, our Government could certainly take some cues from its Chinese counterpart.

by Emma Haslett
Last Updated: 14 Jul 2011
Do engineers need more help when it comes to taking their ideas to market? No, seems to be the general consensus of MT’s readers, when it suggested as much last week after Alan Sugar’s slightly imprudent comment about engineers not being able to run businesses. But we’re not so sure. What about China? With its governing class composed almost entirely of engineers, perhaps its stratospheric GDP growth provides some clue as to what can happen when a government fights the corner for its engineering sector…

We all know the score when it comes to China: one of the world’s fastest-growing economies, it saw year-on-year GDP growth of 9.7% in the first quarter of this year, compared to the UK’s rather paltry 0.5%. That’s largely driven by its burgeoning manufacturing sector, which last year overtook the US as the largest in the world. In fact, almost 20% of the world’s manufacturing output came from China last year, according to research by IHS Global Insight.

What’s not so well known is that its Politburo Standing Committee (essentially, the most powerful members of its government) knows exactly what engineering firms need when they start up. That’s because Hu Jintao, the country’s president, graduated with a degree in water conservancy engineering, while the rest of the group consists of chemical, electrical and radio engineers (with the odd geologist thrown in for good measure).

Compared with the UK’s cabinet, which comprises six PPE degrees, five history degrees, three law degrees, and plenty of other arts and humanities graduates, you can see why China has fared so well in recent years. (Of course, it could just be the case China is a manufacturing economy, therefore engineers tend to run the country. Although, if that’s the case, who should be leading our economy? Bankers?).

It’s by no means perfect: as James Dyson said in his Observer column on Sunday, up until now, the country’s problem has been a lack of innovation (ie. someone else has come up with the ideas while China has been content with turning them into reality). But while manufacturing continues to do well, the country is ‘no longer content with "Made in China", it has to be "Engineered in China".’ Which could have something to do with the 300,000-odd engineers graduating from its universities – in comparison to the 20,000 graduating from ours.

Now admittedly, a government made up entirely of people from one profession isn’t exactly in the interests of balance when it comes to health, education, etc. And its record on worker rights is less than exemplary – you only need to look at the likes of Foxconn to understand that. But if the UK Government is determined to get entrepreneurial businesses to succeed, and wants a return to ‘Made in Britain’ manufacturing, it could do worse than take its cue from the Chinese government and bring in someone who understands how engineers think. And, perhaps, show Lord Sugar exactly what was wrong with that comment…

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