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< On to July 2011

30 June
Opening up engineering

Another Thursday, another post about The Apprentice? Not so, except in the most tangential way, even though last night’s episode was well up there on the cringe factor. But there was another event yesterday which maybe didn’t get the twitterati quite so exercised, but which could I reckon be in the long term important in terms of attracting and recruiting young people into jobs in business and industry: real jobs, as opposed to those on offer from Lord Sugar.

The UK automotive industry yesterday opened its doors to visits and tours and inspections by groups of young people. The industry was backing a pilot scheme for an initiative by the Business, Innovation and Skills department called See Inside Manufacturing; if it has worked, and there’s no reason to suppose it hasn’t, then it’ll be a government programme of some sort and will spread out across the whole of industry, with visits by school parties and others scheduled into school curriculums and industry’s work practices.

This is a good idea and if it was the government’s idea, then good on them. The rules on who’s allowed inside UK manufacturing companies are designed, of course, for health and safety and the protection of people, but they’re so draconian that they perpetuate the myth that anyone entering a factory with 10 fingers and 10 toes is unlikely to emerge with the same number. Almost certainly fewer, in fact. Even where there has been a lot of interchange and involvement by companies with their local schools and communities, there’s often a bit of shying away from letting the public into the places where things are actually made and done. The shopfloor is a no-go.

But when it happens, what you seem almost universally to get is surprise and enthusiasm and greater understanding. The inside of a factory looks like, well, actually, almost everywhere else. It’s not dark, nor satanic, nor dehumanising; there’s no great mystery and a lot of it is actually very interesting. Fun, even. Who, seeing a computer-aided design package in the place where it is actually being used, wouldn’t want to have a go? Quite why the norm has been to hide these things away from young people and the public in general is very odd. And, I think, pretty unhelpful.

So this new scheme is a good thing and a nice counter-balance to the entertaining inanities that masquerade as business life in The Apprentice. But it could, and I think should, go further than just opening up factory doors.

If we really want to get across the idea that engineering and manufacturing are a normal part of life and intrinsic to everything we do as a species, then why are we so shy about introducing them into other things that are taught in schools? Who is producing material for schools to use in geography or history projects, or language teaching, or economics and business studies, that introduces manufacturing or engineering examples as a normal part of everyday life? The disconnect between people and the things that they use everyday and take for granted runs very deep and isn’t helpful. It really is time to open up. Otherwise, the rat-race view of the world of work that The Apprentice feeds into will continue to deter.

24 June
Being grown-up about nuclear

In Germany and apparently in Italy as well, they’ve decided that because of events half a world away they’re going to abandon the plans they had to build further nuclear power stations and will go for other options. That’s their choice, and I wish them well. I’m pleased, though, that the UK government has taken the view that the seismology and geology of Japan, where earthquake and tsunami caused a bit of a nuclear hiatus, aren’t really relevant to what happens here.

I hold no particular torch for nuclear power as a method of power generation, but it does seem to be the most readily available option for the medium term, while we’re getting other ideas up to scale or speed. And the looming prospect of lights going out as older power stations close meant that we needed a decision. Doing nothing, sitting on our hands, is not viable.

Anyway, yesterday the UK government announced the eight sites that will be considered for a new set of nuclear stations by 2025 and a remarkably familiar list it is too. Every single site has already played host to a past nuclear power station, some of them still operational. And I have a small disappointment about that.

I can see, of course, that this is the pragmatic way to do things. Local areas that already have a nuclear station are not likely to kick up much of a fuss about a new one: they’ve lived with the benefits of employment in the industry for years and there haven’t been too many down-sides, so they’ll probably broadly welcome the new stations. There’s also, from a practical viewpoint, continuity for the operating companies too, with local skills they can tap into. So it makes sense.

While recognising all of this, though, I would have liked a bit of bravery somewhere along the line: a new nuclear station to be planned for a new site somewhere that hadn’t had one before. Why? Because I think our rampant Nimbyism and our disconnection with the technologies that enable us to live comfortable lives need to be challenged just a little. We all expect to be able to power up our computers and turn on our lights whenever we want, but we don’t really want the consequences of that – a power station or a factory or whatever – to intrude too far into our everyday lives. As a result, places that were “persuaded”, mostly 50 years ago, to take that burden off the rest of us are still doing that job for us. And we who don’t live there just reap the benefits.

Part of being “adult”, we’re told, is accepting the consequences of one’s own actions and taking difficult decisions as well as easy ones. Yesterday’s announcement that nuclear is going ahead in the UK is a grown-up decision. But it could have gone further.

23 June
The Apprentice, part deux

Last night’s edition of The Apprentice was another bad one for engineers, but also a pretty disastrous one for Lord Sugar and the programme concept too. The outdated and brutalist view of what makes good business practice that this show now represents is doing no one in business and industry any favours. But it is, of course, still eminently watchable, even addictive. Gruesome things often are.

A week ago, engineers were smarting over Lord Sugar’s throwaway line, as he fired blameless contestant Glenn, that he’d never yet met an engineer who was any good at business. This week, the only surviving engineer, Tom, was saved only by the ineptness and passive performance of one of the others, otherwise he was a goner too. For once again, The Apprentice betrayed Lord Sugar’s outmoded and ignorant view that business success is down to salesmanship alone.

This time’s task saw the teams asked to select a couple of UK products and then sell them to French retail outlets who’d not seen them before. Tom, as a team leader, picked a novelty child car-seat device that folded down into a rucksack, but got “persuaded” out of that by Melody, who hadn’t seen the offending item but who was determined to have it her way. Of course, the car-seat thing proved to be an absolute winner for the other team, and Tom’s team lost by a country kilometre.

The unmissable television in this, though, was the sight of the appalling Melody bulldozing her way through the whole thing and then getting praised for it by Sugar and his confederates. Able to speak passable French, which helped her a lot, she justified her prejudices by pretending they were “market research”, grabbed virtually all the sales leads for herself, and ignored requests for information from her fellow team members. Sugar said this showed “hunger”; actually, it showed greed. It wasn’t assertiveness, it was aggressive selfishness – not the performance of a team player, just plain nasty. More fool Tom and the others for letting her get away with it.

But more fool Lord Sugar and the programme makers too. Of course this isn’t a serious programme, and it’s meant to be entertaining (which, of course, it is). But it’s perpetuating stereotypes of business and the behaviours of people in it that are now so wide of the mark as to be positively damaging. Gordon Gecko, the creep in the film Wall Street, was, 20-odd years ago, a parody; today, if he walked into The Apprentice, he’d be greeted warmly by Sugar as an old mate and a chip off the old block. Decent, sensible, civilised, current ways of doing business don’t stand a chance. Under Sugar, greed is good.

Engineer Tom survives for another week in this process, but actually, I now rather hope he doesn’t win. I think he stands a better chance of making a successful business career by trusting to his own instincts on innovation and steering well-clear of people like Sugar.

16 June
The Apprentice engineers

Lord Sugar may well have lost a large percentage of his future audience for The Apprentice last night by firing Glenn, a chirpy electronic design engineer with a sarf London accent (whoops, sorry, apparently Hertfordshire), mainly, it seemed, for being an engineer. His Lordship declared that he’d never yet met an engineer who was any good at business, which was why Glenn had to go. Glenn’s rivals, in the boardroom shoot-out, were Jim, an Irish salesman with the slipperiest of tongues whose poor decision-making lost his team the night’s task, and Susan who, lest we be in any doubt as to her mood, splodges her lipstick on to her face in a triangular pout to show that she disagrees with most things that are done. But their failings cut no ice. Glenn = engineer; engineer = no good; no good = gone. Such is Lord Sugar’s world view.

It is, of course, a ridiculous world view, probably never true and certainly now outdated. Has Sugar never met James Dyson, or Steve Jobs, or any of the thousands of engineers who are running successful companies and who are rich because of their engineering prowess? Did he imagine that his own fortune was solely based on salesmanship, and not on some cunning engineering that enabled him to undercut the markets 30 years ago for what was then new-ish technology?

More daftly, Sugar is undermining the premise for his own TV programme. This year’s version of The Apprentice, instead of offering a six-figure salaried job within Sugar’s own “mega-corporation”, has the 16 candidates competing for a £250,000 start-up fund and business backing for a new venture. You’d think the engineers and innovators would be in a good position. But the tasks designed to weed them out are all still pretty much based on salesmanship, not on innovative thinking; and even when the salespeople screw up, as Jim did last night, it’s the non-sales people who get fired.

What engineers in particular enjoy about The Apprentice, I reckon, is seeing salespeople getting their comeuppance, finding out what happens when the cliches run out, watching the brash crash and burn – those are the bits we watch it for. We know it’s not really serious, but it does have an appeal based on the fact that it seems to be broadly a fair process, if ruthless. But last night’s programme rather spoilt that, and spoilt Lord Sugar’s reputation too.

If we can be bothered to go on with this, the one on this year’s Apprentice that all engineering eyes will now be looking to, of course, is Tom: he has the stereotypical “mad inventor” eyes and hair but he’s also a mechanical engineer. Just don’t tell Sugar.

6 June
It's a data day today

Sorry about the heading, but two sets of economic data are out today. There is the International Monetary Fund’s view of how well the UK is doing and whether the government’s policies are doing the business of avoiding the double-dip recession that’s been widely feared. And then there are the figures from the EEF, the manufacturing organisation, about how that part of the economy is doing. I wonder which will get the greater media coverage.

Actually, I don’t wonder at all. The IMF, despite the fact that its erstwhile chief was also due in a New York courtroom today and that his replacement might, conceivably, have been Gordon Brown, is the body that all governments look to for approval. If the IMF says you’re doing all right, then apparently you are. Whether anyone has ever analysed the track record of the IMF in its predictions and approval ratings is not clear, but it is, in world economics, the equivalent of Simon Cowell. What it says, goes.

And what it says today is that the UK government is actually doing pretty much all right, and its plans are on course, though it might be wise to develop something of a fall-back position should things not pan out as expected. This IMF view is a tad more chirpy than most of the papers and analysts have been about UK economic policy recently as the cuts take effect and doubts increase about whether there is sufficient capacity left to generate growth from anywhere.

So the big coverage on TV, web and in news media, will be about the IMF. But actually, I reckon the EEF’s quarterly survey is just as important this time around. What it’s saying is that the rumours about the recovery in manufacturing running out of steam are not, currently, borne out by the facts. UK manufacturing had a good quarter and the EEF sees no reason why it shouldn’t continue.

So why do I think this is worth reporting at least in the same breath as the IMF stuff? Well, it’s all very well having international approval for our economic policies and performance, but one of the priorities in this period, I reckon, should be the “re-balancing” of the economy to give greater weight to the bits that add value and less weight to activities that are merely grown-up versions of Pass the Parcel. And the EEF figures suggest, in a limited way that we’ll hope can be built on, that perhaps this is finally happening.

2 June
Wired for inaction

I’m used to working surrounded by piles of paper. In fact, the state of my desk/office/surrounding area has been a long-running “joke” wherever I’ve worked, and my office at home is no different. It is, depending on your viewpoint, an eyesore or an artwork, a health hazard or a haven for endangered species of insect and animal life, a total mess or a sophisticated multi-dimensional filing system. Of these pairs of alternatives, of course, my preference is for the second option in each case. But I recognise there are other views.

Working from home, however, makes me realise that, aside from paper, there is a second hazard to efficient orderliness: wires and cables. On my desk, among the papers, I have a power lead for my computer, a mouse wire, two phone lines, two cables with an old modem in the middle that I use as and when I can’t get wireless broadband to work properly, a wire to connect my iPod to the computer, a wire to connect my camera to the computer, a power lead for the elderly CD player I sometimes use if I want sound, headphone wires, and a USB extension cable. There’s also a couple of other wires that I can’t immediately identify. All except the iPod wire are black or grey; I think pretty well all of them have different connectors at the ends.

There are other wires on the floor, of course – whole gangs of them, in fact. And just behind my desk are a couple of older laptops that I rarely if ever use, camera battery chargers and other bits. My printer is in a different room, so isn’t a local hazard, but I do have a TV and a digibox on a neighbouring table. All these things have wires and cables too, all different in terms of connectors, but very similar in terms of overall look and feel. Which wire is which? I think I know, but it’s often difficult to be certain. If I need a particular wire, will I be able to find it?

All this is not helpful, and I think the manufacturers of gadgetry and equipment should do something about it. Whereas every bit of paper has its tell-tale identification in terms of printing or writing on it, so you know what it is, you can search high and low to find any identifier on most of these black cables. Why? I’m sanguine enough to know that it’s beyond the bounds of possibility to get all manufacturers to standardise on a particular style of connector to get the cables to be interchangeable. But colour coding? Inkjet printed cables? Identifier tags?

Open up a telecoms junction box or a control panel in a car or on an industrial machine, and you see that wires come in all shapes, sizes and colours, and there are international standards committees that draw up rules on these things. But not, apparently, for office and domestic equipment. Why?

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