Engineering: The prospects are good and the training is great

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The Independent Online

Engineering enriches our society and strengthens our economy. It involves the application of ideas, knowledge and scientific discovery and touches every part of our lives. The way our society communicates, what we eat and drink, the air we breathe, the environment we inhabit and the medical processes that we rely upon all depend on the skills and innovation of engineers.

Engineering is a therefore a tremendous career option: it offers variety, excitement and is rewarding both intellectually and financially. Engineering skills are - and will continue to be - in great demand throughout the world, particularly in the UK where approximately 3,000,000 people are employed in the industry.

As a profession, engineering is constantly changing and is at the cutting edge of technology. It covers an enormous variety of roles and services from traditional manufacturing, aerospace and automotive industry through to construction and civil engineering. Engineers, male and female, are biomedical researchers, aeronautical and Formula One vehicle designers; they are behind superhighways, bridges and buildings and they create the latest music and information technologies.

In fact, if we took away all the things that engineers have had a hand in designing, making or improving, you would find yourself sitting in a bare field with no chair, no desk, no buildings and most definitely no computers or electronic entertainment... and probably without any clothes on!

A career in engineering is not only interesting, well-paid and rewarding, but apparently it also makes you happy. According to the City & Guilds Happiness Index, the highest levels of happiness among professionals were found in chartered engineers (18 per cent).

Being essential in all aspects of society, the profession needs people from every walk of life and with a wide range of abilities and there are therefore many routes into the profession. A degree course, a modern apprenticeship, or full time further education leading to an advanced GNVQ in engineering (equivalent to two A-levels) a City & Guilds or BTEC certificate and now the new Foundation Degrees, which will provide greater studying flexibility for students.

While the spectrum of jobs available to engineers is vast, there are certain things that people who work in engineering will probably have in common. They are likely to be using state-of-the-art technology for all manner of tasks. They probably work as part of a team, all working to the same end - and having fun en route. They usually have well-respected qualifications, whether a basic NVQ in a general engineering skill or a highly specialised PhD that has taken many years of study to get. And their work will be varied and interesting.

As an engineer, you could work in a small company with just a handful of employees, or for a massive multinational company that has offices based in every city in the world. Either way, the prospects are good and the training is both excellent and enjoyable.

Tried and tested

The Royal Academy of Engineering has a number of schemes under its Best Programme banner that promote science, engineering and technology to young people. These include Young Engineers clubs that operate in schools, and Young Engineers for Britain, which is a competition for students with innovative ideas. Many of these ideas are patented and end up in the market place.

The Smallpiece Trust run a selection of engineering masterclasses and residential courses for students from Year 8 that includes forensics, marine, aerospace and electronic engineering, robotics, materials, motor sport, design and manufacture.

For year 12 students, there is the Engineering Education Scheme (EES) which offers teams of four students a real company engineering challenge and in many cases the student solution is adopted by the company which can make them more effective - and often saves money.

For many students, investigating which course and university to choose can be a daunting process as there are almost too many choices. An answer to this dilemma is the Headstart programme. During the summer holidays, prior to starting year 13, Headstart offer over 40 UK university residential visits to witness first hand what the differences are between the various engineering courses, experience lectures and generally have all those course questions answered.

For many young people the best time to experience a gap year is at the end of A-levels and before university life begins. To aid this process, the Year in Industry scheme helps year 13 students to find a suitable placement company that will provide a university course related industrial experience, not just in engineering or science but also marketing and business. Visit for details of all the Best Programmes.

There are also a number of other schemes that promote science and engineering related careers to young people in education and these include the Learning Grid at which includes Greenpower, F1 in Schools and Formula Schools.

Electrical engineering in focus

Steve Holmes didn't go to university by the traditional route but ended up doing his electrical engineering degree at Sheffield after completing a four year modern apprenticeship at Michelin Tyres in Stoke-on-Trent. Not sure that A-levels were suited to him, Holmes embarked on the electrical/mechanical apprenticeship that provided him with industrial experience and day release to study for BTEC qualifications.

Success with his day release college course provided the opportunity for a rethink and at the end of his apprenticeship he started his electrical degree with a distinct engineering advantage over his A-level entry peers - apart from having to brush up on his maths knowledge.

Holmes' four year MEng degree included power engineering, networks and motor control and protection which led to a summer placement at the end of his third year with rail technology consultants Interfleet Technology. After graduating, Holmes' practical expertise linked to his university course made him an attractive catch and he joined United Utilities on their two year graduate development programme that provides placements in various functions around the business. He has been involved in network design and worked on electrical distribution systems from 240 up to 132,000 volts and a recent highlight was being selected to be a presenter on the IET Faraday Lecture series that took him around the UK, Ireland and Asia.

Chemical engineering in focus

Nick Connelly attended UMIST (University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology) and chose to study chemical engineering as the course covered a wide range of topics and offered a huge variety of career opportunities.

Having chosen maths, physics and chemistry A-levels, there was still a wide range of degree courses to choose from and Connelly wasn't ready to narrow himself down too much career-wise.

The UMIST course he chose offered a wide range of technical subjects but also provided the opportunity to cover more managerial topics such as psychology and business planning.

Connelly reckons there aren't many chemical engineering graduates who get through the course without a few late nights - but the old saying of " work hard and play hard" held true. This gave a real sense of achievement and that is how he would sum up studying chemical engineering.

He applied for jobs in engineering design, pharmaceuticals and finance, and accepted a job that started in the design of new plants. The excellent training provided by a chemical engineering degree has allowed Connelly to progress from this role, through engineering management and onto other wide ranging opportunities.

Connelly is currently working across a range of engineering projects to ensure that the designs are both safe and offer value for money. He is also heavily involved in planning how large future projects will find the necessary skilled resource to make sure they are delivered safely.

Bioengineering in focus

Helen Bailey, a student at Leeds University, recently travelled to the USA, with help from The Royal Academy of Engineering, to present her work on Vegeblock - masonry units made from recycled waste and vegetable oil.

UK caterers produce between 50 and 90 million litres of waste cooking oil each year and in the USA, restaurants produce about 300 million US gallons (1.1 thousand million litres).

Bailey utilises this waste oil as a binder with recycled and waste aggregates such as incinerated sewerage sludge ash and steel slag to make building bricks.

Waste vegetable oil is no stranger to recycling. In recent years it has been used in the production of bio-diesel fuel.

However, by adding waste oil to aggregate, the oil can be encouraged to form a binder for the aggregate, and may therefore be a suitable alternative to traditional clay and cementitious binders.

This is good news for Bailey, good news for the building trade - and good news for the environment.

Bailey then investigates the physical and mechanical properties of the bricks - including their weight, strength, flexibility and brittleness - compared to conventional building materials.

She is part of a joint research team comprising top engineers from Leeds and Nottingham

Mechanical engineering in focus

Luke Fowler is another engineering graduate who started his career by embarking on an apprenticeship at 16 and after completing his BTEC ordinary and higher qualifications he went on to study at the University of Birmingham. Allen Gears, part of the Rolls-Royce group of companies and based at Pershore, provided a great start by sending him off to Worcester College of Technology for his first year of training and then day release, whilst he found out about engineering and how the company operated through placements with manufacturing, design, commercial, purchasing and subcontract.

Allen Gears suggested he continue his studies at university and sponsored him though a mechanical engineering degree where he graduated with a first class honours pass. He was also given a Whitworth Award by the IMechE,a bursary given to apprentices who go on to do a degree. His work at Allen Gears is as a design engineer on marine products and also the development of new gear boxes for projects such as the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF). Fowler has also started an MSc at Cranfield on the design of rotating machinery and recommends the apprenticeship route to students who enjoy maths and science at school.

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