Monday, 8 November 2010

The greatest threat to engineering in the UK?

Watching question time and seeing people’s comments on Twitter last week showed what an emotive topic raising the limit of student fees is.  Is this the greatest single threat to the growth of science and engineering industries that the UK and England in particular currently faces? 

I have volunteered as a Science and Engineering Ambassador for over 6 years for a number of organisations including ICE, STEMNET and WISE and spoken to students from all sorts of schools. Slowly efforts like these by the growing number of Ambassadors are getting the message across that science and maths related subjects actually open doors for people’s careers.  There’s no denying that the world and the country needs to encourage young people to study science and engineering to further develop, this is recognized by politicians worldwide including Barak Obama who said in his book The Audacity of Hope “I wish the country had fewer lawyers and more engineers.” 

To become a Chartered Civil Engineer as I am, taking the route that I did, requires sound A-levels in maths and physics and a Masters degree from an accredited course and University (there are of course other routes which you can find out more about at this link).  These tend to be 4 year degrees which are not cheap to run.  One of the things that so attracted me to study engineering was the variety of subjects covered and the ways in which they are taught.  There’s materials theory, structural analysis, design in different materials along with law, accounting, management and a number of research and laboratory modules that add up to usually over 20 hours of lectures a week, with all the self study time that is expected on top of that.  A soft degree this isn’t.  It may be an option for some Arts degrees to condense them into two years by increasing lecture time but I don’t think that will be possible with Engineering degrees.

Engineering is a good career. There are a wealth of opportunities within the industry and other high-flying businesses are always attracted to Engineering graduates who have good project management, lateral thinking and analytical skills.  It is an immensely satisfying job, I don’t think there are many comparable jobs where you can walk past something that will be there for generations and say “I designed that” or “I made that work”. 

Sadly it is not the best paid of graduate jobs.  It is definitely not the worst but repaying 4 years of student fees is going to take a long time. If you count tuition fees at an estimate of £6k a year and rent and other costs at a very conservative £2.5k a year each graduate will leave university with a £34k debt…not an attractive proposition. I don’t understand the proposed variable interest rates linked to individuals salary, why should ambition be penalized over and above what will be paid in income tax?  All I hope is that there is a response from the industry to increase the number of scholarships for engineering students and cap the fees at a manageable level for vocational degrees who’s graduates are desperately needed for the future of engineering and technology in this country.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

What do engineers do?

I’m a structural engineer and I design buildings. When I say that to people 9 times out of 10 I get a reply along the lines of “so you’re an architect then”.  Why is it that what engineers do is so misunderstood and underappreciated?  There are fantastic role models out there, if you know where to look, take Yewande Akinola an engineer who is getting amazing exposure on channel 4 at the moment as one of the modern engineers rebuilding the titanic.

I have been asked the architect question so many times by people of all age groups that I’ve perfected my fairly basic initial explanation. 

Take a person, imagine this is the building, a product.  The architect would say what they want the person to look like, their height, shape, any defining features and functions.  The structural engineer (that’s me) would say well, we will need the bone structure to take this form, be in these places, fit together like this and be built like this.  But it takes a lot more specialists to produce a successful building than you would imagine and often, frustratingly, it’s the architect that gets the credit and publicity.  Continuing the person analogy, you need mechanical engineers to design the heart, lungs, essential organs and make sure they are the right size for the job. Electrical engineers are responsible for connecting all the organs together, designing the nervous system of the person or building and we all have to work together to coordinate the end product.  I know this is a very simplified example but it tries to paint a picture of the collaborative nature of engineering, it is all teamwork and communication.

I’m not from a family of engineers, in fact, I didn’t know a single engineer when I chose to study it at university but I was utterly inspired by a book that I read during my History of Art and Architecture A-level: Peter Rice’s An Engineer Imagines.  He eloquently showed how successful engineering and architectural collaborations result in some of the most career defining projects.  His enviable CV included the Pompidou Centre in Paris and the Sydney Opera House, neither of which could have been realised without ground breaking engineering and appreciation of the architectural intent.

My career defining project (so far!) Aylesbury Theatre opened earlier this month (I took this photo on the gala opening night), my company Ramboll worked closely with the Architects (RHWL’s Arts Team) for over 6 years to realise the architectural vision.  It was an amazing project to be involved in, I was responsible for the structural design of the striking timber foyer, the high performance reinforced concrete auditorium and the multi-functional steel roof trusses.  There have been a whole host of specialist designers involved, including Ramboll’s mechanical and electrical engineers, fire and fa├žade engineers and external consultants for the theatre equipment and acoustics.  The successes of the project I believe are attributable to the Architect’s vision and the skill and dedication of the team of engineering specialists and contractors

I would like to see a better understanding of the role of engineers in the community, whether responsible for buildings, schools, infrastructure, industry, sustainability, invention and innovation and the importance of collaborative working.