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Education: Exciting times for electrical engineers

Electrical engineers are becoming scarce; as a result, there has never been a better time to be one, says John Pullin.

A lot of the work of electrical engineers is highly visible. Aliens peering at the Earth might well use the evidence of electrical engineering activity - the glow from billions of lights that marks out centres of population - as an indication that the planet harbours intelligent life of sorts.

But the traditional and visible parts of the electrical engineering profession, such as power generation and the manufacture of equipment, are the ones causing concern in Britain.

The worry is that many potential electrical engineering students are being siphoned off into the related areas of microelectronics and computing. And this could leave the traditional employers of electrical engineers facing an acute skills shortage.

"It's the new industries that seem to be more sexy on the graduate side," says Chris Lee, human resources manager at electric power engineering consultancy Mott Ewbank Preece, which handles power projects worldwide. "Those interested in going into the traditional electrical engineering fields often seem to end up in computing or electronics."

Geoff Pitts, chairman of the engineering admissions panel at Southampton University, says that in 1996, the latest figures available, only around 80 students in Britain started out on degree courses that would equip them specifically for careers in the high-voltage industries that used to take most electrical engineering graduates.

He says: "This compares with about 1,000 students on this kind of course in Singapore, and about 2,000 here on courses with the emphasis on electronics."

Dr Pitts' estimate is that the 1996 numbers represent only about a fifth to a sixth of the numbers of graduates needed each year in industry. A few years ago, he says, a survey indicated that power generation, transmission and distribution in Britain required about 240 new high-calibre electrical engineers a year: the changes in the industry may have reduced that number, but alternative employers requiring the same graduate skills have emerged in sectors such as office equipment and disk drives and in new areas such as electrostatics and electromagnetic compatibility.

Some electrical engineering degree courses have closed or shifted the emphasis to electronics.

But there is concern about quality, too. Both industrialists and academics believe that some of the surviving "pure" electrical engineering courses are accepting students with lower qualifications. There seems also to be broad agreement that degrees from some universities are much less taxing than those from the top universities.

One senior academic who preferred not to be named says that most of his top electrical engineering students come from overseas. He blames dull career paths in UK utilities and big manufacturers for putting many students off: "It hasn't exactly been exciting work," he says.

Malcolm Kennedy, chairman of electrical engineering group Merz & McLellan, denies there is a lack of excitement, but says he worries, too, that increasing numbers of courses are geared to short-term job trends and that is "deflecting attention away from the fundamentals electrical engineers need". Electrical engineering, he says, is one of the toughest academic disciplines: "You need maths to a higher standard than any other subject."

This problem of standards is being tackled by moves within the engineering profession to remove accreditation from degree courses that take students without the requisite number of A-level "points". This is due to take effect in the next four years. But it is likely to reduce the numbers even further.

Dr Pitts at Southampton thinks the accreditation changes make action on traditional electrical engineering even more urgent. "We've got to reverse the downward trend, and we've got to do it in the next couple of years," he says. "At the moment many firms in industry are oblivious to the problem because they've taken on people who were shaken out of the power generation industry at privatisation. But looking five to 10 years hence, there's a massive shortage."

Dr Pitts' warnings - they are being taken very seriously by the electrical manufacturers' association Beama and by the Engineering Employers' Federation - sit awkwardly alongside the good cheer that emanates from electrical engineering as a whole.

John Williams, secretary of the Institution of Electrical Engineers, the biggest of the 40-odd professional engineering institutions, reels off a long list of sectors where IEE members are leading lights: many of them, like software, microelectronics and systems, are undeniably growth areas of business and industry.

The growth areas, and the skill shortages in the traditional power sector, mean that electrical engineering graduates rarely lack job offers, and salary surveys indicate IEE members in general are among the better paid professional engineers. It is, says Dr Williams, "probably one of the very best times to be an electrical engineer".

Changes in the British electricity industry landscape and in manufacturing industry also mean that careers are broadening out. "The boundaries of electrical engineering are being redefined every day," says Mr Kennedy at Merz & McLellan. He cites environmental impact, control systems and networks as technologies where electrical engineers are moving in.

But there is a cultural change afoot, too. Nigel Cragg, human resources director at GEC Alsthom transmission and distribution group, says the old emphasis on production has changed. "We're moving in on the service side and the project consultancy side. The motivation now is based on the market and that's a real change. We're training engineers to become business managers."

Dr Pitts adds: "There are lots of very exciting areas in applying new technologies and ideas to existing products, in developing new products, and in projects worldwide." Apparently humdrum items of equipment such as transformers have been transformed through new materials and designs in the past 15 years, says Mr Kennedy: "It's a very fast-moving field."