Invest in brains

Invest in brainsOne of the main problems facing engineers is that with engineering knowledge expanding rapidly many of the technologies underpinning current systems are not being addressed by our places of learning. So how is this problem to be tackled? Roy Rubenstein reports
The setting is the keynote address at the recent International Solid State Circuit Conference held in San Francisco. The speaker, Dr Johan Danneels, is talking about the ‘inexhaustible platform of new wealth’ being created by advanced Asics and software. “However, the main bottleneck is a lack of engineering talent,” warns Danneels, chairman and CEO of Alcatel Microelectronics.
According to Danneels, it is the responsibility of the industry to address the skills problem: “Education is lagging behind,” he points out. “We need to invest in brains and educate them into talented engineers.”
Three weeks later and the scene moves to London’s Grosvenor House: the speaker is the IEE’s President David Jefferies. “The range and depth of engineering knowledge is expanding so rapidly that a good engineering degree has a ‘half life’ of only four year,” he said. For Jefferies the demands now being placed on engineers are considerable: “I doubt that any other profession asks as much of its members.”
What is being asked of engineers is not necessarily what universities are providing. Many of the technologies underpinning current systems, as well as the competitive pressures facing the industry, are not being addressed by most academic lecturers.
To date many commercial organisations have failed to recognise the problem, but there are encouraging signs that the situation may be changing.
The most ambitious company scheme to tackle the engineering skills shortage in this country is British Aerospace’s (BAe) virtual university, which is being launched in three month’s time.
BAe believes the university will turn it into a ‘learning organisation’, offering educational opportunities not just for its 44,000 employees but for its customers, clients and supplier chain too.
The university will comprise a faculty of engineering and manufacturing technology, an international business school and a faculty of learning. The latter will offer continual learning opportunities for the workforce, “from NVQs to PhDs”. It will also liaise with universities to offer students vacation work.
Dr Geraldine Kenney-Wallace, BAe’s vice chancellor heading the initiative, stressed that the university will do more than just address the skills shortage. “We are looking at issues of competitiveness, skills and competencies; we want flexible, multi-skilled people able to have a continual on-going learning capacity.”
BAe plans to have the first courses in place by early summer, with other courses coming on-line in 1999.
“British Aerospace is not the first to focus on company learning schemes but in terms of a 21st Century position, we believe we are ahead of the wave,” said Kenney-Wallace.
A more immediate approach companies are adopting to tackle the skills shortage is to offer financial incentives to secure the best engineering graduates.
UK telecommunications firm GPT has just announced an incentive scheme offering a ?3,000 handout to electronic engineering graduates. “We don’t want to lose the pick of the crop because of the financial difficulties some students are now facing,” said GPT’s personnel director, Paul Pagliari.
GPT hopes to attract 150 first and second class honours graduates in electronics, software and communications disciplines using this approach (see Electronics Weekly, February 25).
GPT’s offer is likely to be the first of many. In effect, such firms are taking part in a winner-takes-all contest; they are also picking up the tab for education being relinquished by the government. And while this strategy may alleviate their search for engineering talent, it does little to address the overall shortfall of engineering students.
And how is Alcatel Microelectronics tackling its continual ten per cent shortage of engineers? According to Danneels, Alcatel is working to “fuel more direct projects involving students.” To this aim, it is collaborating with several Belgium universities as well as the microelectronics research laboratory IMEC. Such projects involve several students as well as staff members.
“It will help to ventilate ideas further into courses but all this takes time,” said Danneels. “It takes five years at least to teach a new generation of engineers.”

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