Mark Elborne: For engineers, it's a question of respect

The boss of General Electric UK says their lack of status could cost Britain dear
  • @BawdenTom

General Electric's (GE) UK boss, Mark Elborne, has a real beef with this country about engineers' lack of status. A voracious reader of Lee Childs' thrillers and a father of five, 54-year-old Mr Elborne strongly believes that engineers get nowhere near the respect they deserve from politicians, businessmen, students and the public at large.

Seen as nerdy, when they should be regarded as cool, the low regard for engineers working in everything from mechanics to software puts the UK at risk of a "brain drain" which threatens to derail Britain's bid to manufacture its way to long-term prosperity, he says.

"Engineering has lost its public cache, but technology is the product of great, engineering brains.

"Young engineers have the world in the palm of their hands, the appetite for them is insatiable," said Mr Elborne, who took up GE's top UK job in April 2009 after five years at the company.

Mr Elborne warns that the problems facing would-be engineers begin early, arguing that school education is not sufficiently geared to subject, thereby exacerbating the playground stigma attached to its pursuit.

"Universities are saying that a lot of young people are coming without the basic essential skills to do the courses, that there is a lack of the fundamental stem skills," said Mr Elborne, who spent the 24 years before GE at the Cameron McKenna law firm, where he specialised in insurance.

"We need to encourage people into engineering today if we're not going to be short in 10 years' time.

"The problem is all the more pressing because Britain is grappling with the challenge of converting to a low-carbon economy as resources dwindle," said the GE boss.

For Mr Elborne, the shale gas revolution has made the extremely difficult job of dramatically reducing Britain's carbon emissions over the next decade considerably easier.

GE is at the heart of the shale gas industry, which has revolutionised America's energy market by slashing prices and dramatically reducing the country's reliance on foreign power.

The revolution is set to spread to Europe after large quantities of shale gas were found in countries such as the UK and Poland.

However, the extraction process – known as fracking – is highly controversial because it involves blasting sand, water and chemicals into the rocks to release the gas and has been linked to earthquakes and water pollution.

"We're keeping an eye on shale gas in the UK, where it clearly presents an enormous opportunity and could have a very big impact on energy security," Mr Elborne said.

"Gas is crucial to the development of a low-carbon economy because it is so much less polluting than coal or oil and shale gas is a huge focus for GE globally. We are looking at where to invest, what sort of research and development needs to be done, and how to support our customers."

Mindful of the environmental concerns around fracking, he says: "There is a lot of work that developers need to do and, as a technology company, GE is having to understand the questions of how to extract, refine and deliver shale gas.

"We can be involved right across the spectrum, from valves, pumps, motors and compressors on the extraction side to reusing the water afterwards."

But the opportunities provided by fracking and other developing markets notwithstanding, it is his deep-held engineering beef that Mr Elborne keeps coming back to.

If the results of a recent GE survey are anything to go by, Lord Sugar seemed to sum up the disrespect of the nation when he said on an episode of The Apprentice last summer: "I have never yet come across an engineer that can turn his hand to business. I'm not convinced a leopard is going to change his spots," said the bearded one in typically outspoken fashion.

Mr Elborne attacked Lord Sugar the next day for his "outdated attitudes".

The survey, of 1,000 students and lecturers in all sub-sectors of engineering, from mechanics to computers, found that the "most essential ingredient" to boosting the number of engineers was to foster "a positive societal attitude towards the benefits and value of technology".

Next most important, they said, was to invest more cash in higher education – needless to say, those surveyed expressed concern about public spending cuts and rising tuition fees.

As a result of the poor perception and low funding, the majority of lecturers feel Britain's "engineering talent pool" will shrink in the future – and at a time when the country needs an estimated 587,000 additional engineers by 2017 if the economy is to be rebalanced.

To put the UK's lack of engineering into perspective, India produces 650,000 engineering graduates annually compared to Britain's 20,000.

Despite the gloomy outlook, Mr Elborne believes that we might be starting to turn a corner, in no small part because the rise of Apple is helping to making engineering a little bit more sexy.

"The rise of Apple is making a difference. Our lives have become dominated by technology and it is going to become an even bigger part of our lives – this creates fantastic opportunities for engineers," he said.

UK base: World reach

General Electric's UK operation is its biggest after the US, spanning energy, finance, healthcare, aviation, transport and even lighting.

It recorded revenues of £5bn in 2010, employing 18,000 people at 60 sites across the UK.

As such, the unit touches most aspects of our lives.

For instance, GE's heat and power gas engines will provide the energy supply for the entire Olympic grounds as well as the Shard of Glass, which will be London's tallest building when it is completed later this year.

The company's aero engines are found in the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, its subsea bendy pipes are used in offshore oil and gas fields as far away as Angola, while its electronics controls business in Bristol can monitor and manage devices on the other side of the world.