Minister with BIG portfolio

Minister with BIG portfolioBattle by name, battle by nature. With a brief as wide as the one the Minister for Science, Energy and Industry has, it’s hard to be all things to all people. John Battle is trying…Jon Mainwaring spoke to him John Battle, the Minister for Science, Energy and Industry, as his title suggests, has a very wide brief. Labour thought it wise to give one junior minister responsibility for government policy in these three areas which, put together, would cause anyone a great deal of grief while they make giant intellectual leaps from one issue to another. Perhaps the government feels that such an appointment will create holistic solutions to the many problems which face an advanced industrial economy as it moves into the 21st Century. If so, then surely the minister recognises that one part of the answer to the problem of improving this country’s industrial position is to recruit more young people into the engineering profession which, as everyone knows, is losing more and more talented youngsters to other careers? Fortunately he does. Battle sees that the shortage of people embarking upon careers in engineering is likely to cause UK industry a few headaches in the near future. “I think it’s generally accepted that there is a problem,” he says. He believes this problem stems from how children and teenagers see engineering as a career. “We do know that career perceptions are massively influential,” he says. “The problem is that engineering has a perception that is 19th Century. I want it to be seen as 21st Century.” Engineering in the UK, unfortunately, is not seen as a “clean”profession, like banking, law or marketing. Kids do not see high tech research and development labs, or design centres, when they think of engineering. They see the grime of the factory shop floor, long hours and low pay. Battle would like to see engineering lose this image. “Engineering is the key to the future,” he says, and he clearly believes that it should be presented as such. Of course, the one obvious way to improve the image that engineers have in society as a whole is to dispel the idea that engineers are poorly paid. While engineers themselves might complain that the best way to do this would be to raise salaries, various commentators on the profession – most notably Michael Heath of the Engineering Council – point out that engineers do not realise how well off they actually are; the Engineering Council’s 1997 salary survey found that the average earnings for chartered engineers was over ?40,000 per year. Battle agrees with the view that engineers do not understand how green their grass is. He points to a survey he recently saw that looked at the salaries earned by new graduates, which countered the idea that accountants are always better off than engineers. “In fact, the average salary an engineering graduate who goes into industry will get now is ?16,000,” he says. “The average for graduates who go into accountancy careers is ?13,500.” Of course, there are very talented graduates, some of whom have engineering degrees, who go and pursue financial careers in the City of London, and who consequently do very nicely. But Battle believes many of these people burn themselves out quickly in careers that are not very satisfactory. “That’s hot money and a short life,” he says. One other factor about engineering that the minister thinks should be very appealing to young people is that those who train as engineers are rarely out of work. “The unemployment level is only two per cent,” says Battle. So how should the government get youngsters fired up about engineering? Battle believes that the environment might be one way of getting youngsters interested in the profession. Recently he spoke at the Institution of Electrical Engineers about this. “Young people are passionate about the protection of the environment,” he said. “I believe that if we are to attract the brightest of our young people into engineering, we must tap into this enthusiasm and promote the major role which engineering has to play in improving the quality of life through environmental solutions and sustainable development.” But does Battle really believe that this message is going to attract the UK’s brightest brains, while the lure of big bucks from elsewhere still exists? “Youngsters are not just after hot City money,” he points out. “They’re more idealistic than that.” And what does he think of the marketing campaign that the Engineering Council, the Engineering Employers’ Federation and the Engineering and Marine Training Authority are undertaking to promote the engineering profession nationwide? “‘At last. Great!’ was my response when I heard about it,” says Battle, although he would not say how much support for the campaign the three organisations should expect from the DTI. Instead, he wants industry to help with existing DTI projects such as SETNET(Science, Engineering, Technology and Mathematics Network). This has come out of the government’s Action for Engineering initiative, and aims to finds ways to enhance the teaching and learning of engineering related subjects. All in all it sounds as if the government is making the right sounds, but action to promote engineering within the UK still looks as if it is being conducted in a piecemeal fashion. Perhaps New Labour needs to appoint one person exclusively to this mammoth task?
It certainly does not seem fair to expect Battle to deal with this as well as everything else he has on his plate.


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