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
  • @MLeftly

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.