Mark Leftly: Why we should engineer better careers for our best and brightest youngsters

Outlook. Plus: Blaming the weather isn’t much of an excuse

Jake Sanders is 20 and Scott Cook is 18. Clearly quite smart lads but neither is studying at a university. But academia's loss should be the engineering profession's gain.

I met this pair at Hinkley Point B this week, miles away from the nearest pubs or clubs, certainly a sacrifice at their ages. They were more grown-up than most 18 to 20-year-olds, responsibly maintaining and repairing key equipment at a nuclear power plant and speaking thoughtfully about their ambitions.

They show that "apprenticeship" is no longer a dirty word, that bright young things think – and prove – that they can thrive outside university.

Unfortunately, Britain's training could be France or Canada's gain, as these were just two of the countries that Jake and Scott said they could travel to with the skills they gain in this isolated corner of Somerset.

That's a shame for the UK, though it's not unusual for youngsters to dream of travelling the globe. What's worrying is that they didn't seem sure that there would be the right work available for them in years to come.

What is even more worrying is that the word "engineer" doesn't spark the right kind of images in our minds. Too often, most of us have looked at engineers as being synonymous with, for example, plumbers.

There's nothing wrong with that profession, of course, but bright teenagers often aspire to something that feels bigger, be it working for a huge company, or maybe coming up with world-changing ideas.

Engineering should offer just that. Perhaps the problem is the UK has always distinguished so much between architects and engineers, the result being that they are viewed as though the former possesses the glamour and the latter does the grunt work. In many countries, architects and engineers are one and the same.

A good example is the £18.2m Millennium Bridge that so infamously wobbled. When London's first river crossing for more than a century started shuddering all over the place, the engineer Arup kept being mentioned as the mastermind behind the bridge.

Yet when Arup sorted out the faults, Lord Foster and his world-famous architecture practice were suddenly the ones behind the bridge. However, the two worked together the whole time – many construction executives argue that a dreamer's fantastical designs are made real by the engineer.

Engineers are problem solvers, and the more we look for infrastructure to stimulate the economy, be it rail, roads or hospitals, the more we will need them. As a country, we need to recognise that there are great engineers beyond Brunel.

For example, at Saddam Hussein's former palace in Basra back in 2004, a handful of British engineers were given just two weeks to sort out the Iraqi southern city's water system.

Normally, designs for such a city-wide scheme would take years, but here they were in a dangerous environment providing the most basic needs of hundreds of thousands of people, undoubtedly saving lives.

That's glamorous, that's important, that's a challenge surely too irresistible for natural problem solvers to ignore. I'm pretty certain it was very well-paying as well.

The really big engineers in this country – the sort of guys who work out how to build skyscrapers, make an Olympic park work, or design huge new rail routes – complain about the lack of skilled graduates around. The best and brightest still move into finance, the media and the law.

Yet an engineer's job is often more exciting than those professions. For those who are working out how to make an airport float in the Thames estuary or dig huge tunnels underneath the capital without the surface falling in on itself, it must be difficult to stick around in the UK when so few acknowledge their extraordinary achievements.

That kind of attitude will not entice the likes of Jake and Scott to work on big projects in the UK. And that's unlikely to change until the big engineers start stating their case that what they do is vital and also publicise the fact there is great work available across the country as these apprentices develop into highly skilled professionals.

Blaming the weather isn't much of an excuse

Talking of Hinkley, the EDF director Nigel Cann was asked whether plans to deliver a large proportion of the proposed new power station's construction material by boat could be a dangerous move because of Britain's increasingly volatile weather.

Aggregates, prefabricated parts could all be delayed by storms or a cold snap.

Yes, he answered, that's true. But, these potential problems have all been factored into the company's business plan, meaning that any delays should cause little financial pain.

How refreshing. This is a particular bugbear of mine, but the retail industry could surely learn from this approach.

Kingfisher was at it again this week, blaming last summer's washout for B&Q's first profit fall in five years.

OK, it was the worst summer for 100 years, which is pretty bad news if you rely on selling a lot of barbecues, but bad weather is an increasing fact of life.

Better to prepare for it; have flexible stock so that a DIY chain isn't reliant on customers desperate to grill a hotdog outside.

Or a high street chain that sees sales hit by fewer people willing to go out in the snow must find other ways of getting them to buy, be it online, over the telephone or whatever these well-paid executives can conjure up in order to keep their businesses ahead of the competition.

So stop making excuses; tailor the business strategy to mitigate the most probable threats, which in Britain most certainly includes the impact of wind and rain.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Voices
There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm tomorrow
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special
tv
News
Claudia Winkleman and co-host Tess Daly at the Strictly Come Dancing final
people
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
PROMOTED VIDEO
News
Elton John and David Furnish will marry on 21 December 2014
people
Sport
SPORT
News
people
Life and Style
A still from the 1939 film version of Margaret Mitchell's 'Gone with the Wind'
life
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Sport
Amir Khan is engaged in a broader battle than attempting to win a fight with Floyd Mayweather
boxing Exclusive: Amir Khan reveals plans to travel to Pakistan
News
Stacey Dooley was the only woman to be nominated in last month’s Grierson awards
mediaClare Balding and Davina McCall among those overlooked for Grierson awards
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
Twitchers see things differently, depending on their gender
scienceNew study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer
film
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Biggins as Mrs Smee in Peter Pan
theatreHow do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Carlton Senior Appointments: Private Banking Manager - Intl Bank - Los Angeles

$200 - $350 per annum: Carlton Senior Appointments: Managing Producer – Office...

Carlton Senior Appointments: San Fran - Investment Advisor – Ind Advisory Firm

$125 - $225 per annum: Carlton Senior Appointments: San Fran - Investment Advi...

Sheridan Maine: Commercial Finance Manager

Up to £70,000 per annum + benefits: Sheridan Maine: Are you a qualified accoun...

Sheridan Maine: Regulatory Reporting Accountant

Up to £65,000 per annum + benefits: Sheridan Maine: Are you a qualified accoun...

Day In a Page

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

Marian Keyes

The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

Rodgers fights for his reputation

Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick