UK: Designing Britain's engineering future. (2 of 2)

UK: Designing Britain's engineering future. (2 of 2) - There are promising signs that the old traditions are reasserting themselves. The hard opening of the 1990s decade has brutally damaged the reputation of the candy-floss financial engineers who flour

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

There are promising signs that the old traditions are reasserting themselves. The hard opening of the 1990s decade has brutally damaged the reputation of the candy-floss financial engineers who flourished in the 1980s. An increasing number of companies - Rolls-Royce, Lucas, BP, Dowty, ICI and Rolls' recently acquired NEI subsidiary, for example - have engineers at or very near the top and are taking a lead in reasserting the vital role of engineering excellence.

Financial and general management skills have their place in the corporate scheme of things. But the balance between the understanding of money and knowing what goes on in the development laboratory and on the shopfloor needs to swing in favour of the latter. Many of the really successful German, American and Japanese - and indeed British - companies are run or dominated by managers who have a feel for the product, a commitment to it and an understanding of why continuous investment in R and D and modern manufacturing plant are so important.

I suspect that one of Britain's problems is that we have too many business schools producing too many Masters of Business Administration and too few resources going into engineering education. Few could criticise the industrial excellence of Japan and Germany but how many of their business schools can you name? Japan has 200 graduate engineers for every 10,100 workers, the same ratio as pre-unification West Germany but considerably more than the United States and the UK. But with 75,000 Japanese engineering graduates being produced every year, more than twice as many as in the US, which is twice its size, the ratio is swinging further in Japan's favour. The number of Japanese researchers per 1,000 workers surpassed America's ratio in the 1980s and at eight per 1,000 compared with four per 1,000 - and falling - in the UK.

There is a snobbery that runs through British life that would give any corporate wife pause before admitting that her husband was an engineer rather than a top executive. We need to elevate the skill of making and doing things, and our praise of it, to where it was in the days of the Abrahams Darby, Charles Chubb, Joseph Bramah, Sir Joseph Whitworth, Isambard Kingdom Brunel and George Stephenson. That way our manufacturers might stand some chance of survival.

(Roger Eglin is managing editor of the business section of The Sunday Times.)

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