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27 September
Behind the BAE bad news

Today’s not unexpected announcement of almost 3,000 job losses at BAE Systems, mostly in its military aerospace division, is being flagged in some quarters as a blow for the manufacturing sector and a challenge to the hopes that manufacturing might lead the UK economic recovery. I don’t want to minimise the importance of the news or the effects of the cuts on the individuals involved, many of whom are likely to be skilled engineers and technologists. But it’s actually neither of these things.

You can count military aircraft building as part of the UK’s manufacturing sector of course, but actually for the past 60-70 years it’s marched to a different drumbeat to the rest of business and industry. At least until recently. It’s a sector that’s been largely protected against the rough winds of boom and bust in the rest of the economy and to a degree protected against the rigours of international competition too.

(Only to a degree protected, I’d say, because patently UK military aircraft manufacturing is dictated by the politicians, and while the politicians will rule out some competitors – we wouldn’t buy aircraft from those pesky Russkies, for instance – they also come to “arrangements” with our “friends”, especially the Americans, that distort true competition. Some people would even date the decisions today back to dark deeds done in the mid-1960s when the potentially world-beating TSR-2 was sacrificed to the “greater good” of transatlantic accord.)

Anyway, because military aircraft building has in the past worked on a different economic basis from other industries, and it’s only really in the past few years that the general economic climate has spilled its baleful influence over into defence procurement, it’s hard to see today’s announcement as relevant either to the competitiveness of manufacturing as a whole or to manufacturing’s wider ability to regain lost ground and lead the economy back to health. This is a special case. I don’t think anyone would have expected military aircraft orders to lead us back to economic well-being; it’s more that a sector that has, for a very long period, outperformed others and bucked most of the recessionary trends is no longer going to do so.

Of course that has an effect, but I’d say that it was in a rather different direction. One of the consequences of today’s job cuts is that large numbers of qualified and talented engineers and technical people are going to be out of a job. Now for a long time, there’s been a view, mostly supported by the evidence although challenged recently, that the UK is short of engineers: short of new graduates, and particularly short of people with a few years deep and meaningful experience in engineering.

Now, suddenly and unfortunately for them, there are lots of these people newly available. And it’s going to be very interesting to see how this all pans out. Employers who’ve been whingeing in a general way about the difficulty of recruiting engineers have some specific people that they could now go after. Will they? People who’ve complained that the UK has been too reliant on defence industries and that defence firms have absorbed too much of the available technical talent don’t have that excuse any more: they have options.

It’s difficult with an announcement such as this to be upbeat and positive, but if you really wanted to be, you might see this move as a potentially positive contribution towards the rebalancing of the UK economy. And it’ll be interesting to follow.

27 September
Road works? No, mostly they don't

The phrase “road works” encapsulates, I reckon, just about as much inaccuracy as it’s possible to get into nine letters. It’s as comprehensively untrue as many other, much longer phrases, such as “The cheque is in the post” or any sentence that begins with the words “With respect…”.

Patently, if there are road works, there isn’t currently a road. It’s an ex-road, or a road in abeyance, or a proto-road. But of the pair, the word that really sticks in one’s craw is “works”. Because for most of the time, a “Road Works” sign indicates a site of no activity whatsoever. There may be a lot of paraphernalia, sometimes surrounding a hole of some kind, but often just left there as so much obstructive litter. And are there people working? No, not often. In fact, almost never.

On motorways, it’s a bit different, and the signs and the other obstructions tend to be parked away when no one’s actually at work on the site. But on our trunk roads and especially in our cities, the hardware of road-building is there for at least 10 times longer than any work that might be taking place, and the “working day” seems unrealistically short. And what is the cost of all this? Delays and inconvenience.

And of course the utilities and the local authorities are really only interested in the financial cost of digging the hole, doing the work, filling it in again. They aren’t really bothered by the consequent cost of disruption to traffic, of people who are late for appointments or work or whatever. Because it’s difficult to calculate, none of this is factored in. Road works jobs meander on until they’re finished, with no urgency at any point, and even when they’re finished the signs and the barricades often don’t get tidied away. A notice on the approach to my road tells all passing motorists that there will be roadworks – in July 2010: no one’s bothered to take the sign down since.

When I worked in construction journalism, the contractors were all very proud of the fact that they could marshal people and machines to deliver projects. They were, they said, masters of logistics and I see no reason to dispute that. But the logistics that work on a new road scheme or a prime civil engineering job don’t work on local small-scale pot-hole mending road works where there’s an unseen customer: me, the driver held in the queue.

Why not? Is it beyond the wit of local authority or energy company  or construction bosses to devise a system where minimising local inconvenience is a priority, alongside cost? The roads are crowded enough, without this unnecessary nonsense on top. Road works? Far too often, no, they don’t.

9 September
More on the shortage of engineers

Apropos yesterday’s blog about the “research” that questioned whether the UK was actually short of engineers (http://t.co/SfZN6Dj), there’s been a flurry of related stuff written in the US along almost entirely the opposite lines. The Americans are asking pretty severe questions about the state of the recovery and how they can afford to pay off all the debts, and it’s going to be the crunch issue in next year’s presidential election. Engineering and manufacturing are pretty much central to these debates. Here’s a couple of examples.

So you’ve got a report from the analysts at Booz & Co which says that US manufacturing industry as a whole is at a crossroads: it could recover to supply up to 95% of the nation’s needs, or it could slip beneath the radar as firms move their manufacturing bases to lower cost nations, in which case it would not really be able to recover. Here, courtesy of the manufacturing blogger Bert Maes, is a link to that in the Wall Street Journal: http://bit.ly/pdsUKc

Another Maes link takes you an article in an Atlanta paper by the head of Intel, Paul Otellini. In it, he bemoans the US shortage of engineers and sees it as critical to US recovery and competitiveness against the growing might of China and India. He also backs President Obama’s jobs commission which called for 10,000 extra engineering graduates a year ”to address the long-term threat of our nation’s growing skills crisis”. Here’s the link to that: http://ow.ly/6mtE8

The Americans don’t have all the wisdom, of course, and when they get things wrong, they do it in a big way. But on the importance of engineering and manufacturing and the danger that is inherent in the shortage of engineering skills, conservatives and liberals in the US are pretty united; over here, too, you don’t find much disagreement these days with the central tenet, agreeing that we have a shortage of the required skills, all but universal among politicians and economists. And I dare say you’d find the same in virtually every developed country: we’re all short of engineers and engineering.

So where does that stuff that came out yesterday fit into all this? Frankly, it doesn’t. It’s rogue. It’s wrong. And what I’m not clear about is whether the wrongness is in the research itself or in the reporting of it. There’s a logic leap between saying that, six months after graduation, a lot of engineering graduates aren’t in engineering and concluding from it that there may be no shortage of engineers. It’s not right, and that needs to be said loud and clear before people start believing it.

8 September
Is there a shortage of engineers?

Almost a quarter of engineering graduates are employed six months after graduation in jobs that don’t require a degree at all; a fifth of them are in grad-level jobs where their engineering degrees aren’t relevant; and “only” 46% are in directly-related jobs. These are findings from a research project, apparently at the  University of Birmingham, presented today at the “British Educational Research Association” under the title of “Is there a shortage of scientists?”

I can’t find the report on Birmingham University’s website, but the BBC has reported it loud and clear on its news website, contrasting this apparent plethora of engineers with the shortage that lots of people, the government included, have been asserting.

Let me make a confession here. It’s now 458 months since my own graduation, and I’ve yet to work, seriously, in the field in which I was “trained”. So maybe I’m a bit biased here.  But there are so many levels on which this “research” seems to me to stink that it’s difficult to know where to begin.

Perhaps we’ll start with with the notion that engineering graduates, unlike history graduates (which is what I am), really have to go into engineering afterwards. Why? Are engineering graduates required, through some strange “debt to society”, to pursue only engineering careers? I rather like the idea that we have people who know something of engineering going into professions like accountancy or banking or even retail. Having people widely spread across business as a whole, and even into areas such as politics or market research, who know how the world actually works is a benefit, I reckon.

And six months after graduation, what of it if some engineering graduates are waiting on tables or propping up bars? What’s wrong with that? Does signing up for engineering at university mean you can never ever step off the treadmill, even for a few months or a gap year?

Because I haven’t been able to find the original of this “research”, I haven’t of course, been able to check some basic premises behind it. I don’t know how engineering graduates compare with, say, history graduates or economists. Or statisticians. Are all classicists lucratively employed in classic professions? I don’t know whether this research is flawed or deeply flawed or nonsense or actually not saying quite as much as the BBC report of it says. The research title says “scientists”; the research seems to be about engineers. In whose eyes are they the same thing?  The researchers’? The BBC’s?

To be fair, I do know that there’s been, for quite a while, an absolute snagging shard of doubt in the conventional wisdom that the UK is short of engineers. The doubt is based on the fact that, if we were really short of engineers, then pay rates for those that we have would be better: the basic law of supply and demand.

But I can salve my doubt on this with the argument that actually, what the UK is short of is engineering – there’s not enough engineering going on in the UK economy, and that’s the real problem. It means, of course, that there aren’t enough engineers, but it also means that if you just concentrate on producing engineers without producing engineering for them to do, then you don’t tackle the root problem. In this circumstance, you might – just might – end up with surplus engineers.

That’s a scenario that I could believe, and a bit of research as to whether this is really the case might well be worth flagging up. But as it is, we’ve got a report that begs more questions than it answers.

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